As volunteers from the Crystal Ball gathered around a horse-drawn carriage that looks as if it could have carried Cinderella to the ball, their sights were set on welcoming a Hollywood princess to the glittering affair, set for Saturday at the Arena at Southaven.

Meridian native Sela Ward and acclaimed actress of stage and screen will greet the large gathering of Mid-Southerners, expected to top last year's nearly overflow crowd, as this year's "Star of Hope' recipient.

The Emmy award-winning actress has had powerful roles in both film and television, including her recent big screen portrayal of the President of the United States in “Independence Day Resurgence.”

She currently stars as Margaret Graves opposite Nick Nolte on the EPIX original series, “Graves.”

Ward won "Best Actress" at the Emmy Awards for her breakthrough performance in “Sisters” and her work in “Once and Again.”

In her native Mississippi, Ward founded Hope Village for Children to provide a safe haven and an alternative to the traditional foster care system. She has also been the driving force in establishing the Mississippi Artists and Entertainers Experience in Meridian, which is expected to open in spring 2018.

Four local Community Stars will also be honored at the fundraiser to aid more than 400 charitable programs through the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi.

The Nonprofit of the Year is the Tri-County Workforce Alliance. The Margaret Maddox Woman of the Year is Lynda Austin, former Walls Mayor; The Dan Maddox Man of the Year is Jaby Denton; The Business of the Year is Fairway Mortgage.

At the Crystal Ball, guests will have the opportunity to bid on spectacular silent auction items like a McCarty Pottery luncheon party or a day on the square in Oxford. Live auction items will be jaw-dropping one-of-a-kind experiences and wondrous trips to vacation destinations.

Another sell-out crowd of 1,000 is expected for the gala.

The black-tie event will include a sumptuous dinner, Rock 'N Roll music by the Dantones, and live and silent auctions — all centered around a vintage fairytale theme: "Once upon a Time: Giving Northwest Mississippi a Happily Ever After with the Community Foundation."

Dozens of volunteers under the leadership of co-chairs Patrick and Emily Johnson of Tunica are preparing to make the gala a fun-filled evening.

“We are so excited to be a part of this year’s Crystal Ball," said Emily Johnson of Tunica. "The Community Foundation is such an amazing organization that helps so many communities. Patrick and I are proud to be supporting their efforts. The gala is going to be a fun, magical night and we are really looking forward to it.”

Emily Johnson said she has witnessed the major impact the Community Foundation has made on the region for nearly two decades. "I've served on the Community Foundation Board for about a year," Emily said. "This is the first time that my husband Patrick and I are chairing this event," added Emily, a Little Rock, Ark. native.

As a couple who manage a large family operation in Tunica, the Johnsons have roots that stretch back for generations.

"My husband is a fourth generation farmer," Emily said of husband Patrick, who owns and runs a cotton, rice and soybeans farming operation in Tunica County. "I must say that I am amazed and impressed with the Community Foundation. We have seen them support a wide number of nonprofits and local volunteers who have a passion for their community and put so much of themselves into making their communities better."

Emily Johnson said there are so many success stories that have been initiated through the Community Foundation that it makes it difficult to select one above the rest.

"It's children getting better grades and getting better access to healthcare," Emily said. "It's young mothers in Clarksdale who don't know how to take care of their children become better mothers through Baby University. I serve on the grant committee, so I get to see the fruit of the efforts of all our partners. It's amazing to see the volunteers who put so much time and effort and energy into their communities. All four Community Star winners have done so much for their communities."

The event, just as it has been during its nearly two decade-run, is sold out.

The Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi is focused on improving the education and health of its eleven-county region’s children and youth and has disbursed $20.1 million to 420 charitable organizations and programs to accomplish its goals. Established in 2002 with a generous grant from the Maddox Foundation, the Community Foundation is an independent 501(c)3 charitable organization. The Foundation serves Bolivar, Coahoma, DeSoto, Leflore, Marshall, Panola, Quitman, Sunflower, Tallahatchie, Tate, and Tunica counties. A board of 19 volunteer civic leaders governs the Community Foundation.

Robert Lee Long is Community Editor of the DeSoto Times-Tribune. He may be contacted at rlong@desototimestribune.com or at 662-429-6397, Ext. 252.

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