WASHINGTON (AFP) — For hundreds down on their luck, it is a dream come true. A Virginia businessman waved a magic wand, and spent a cool 1.6 million dollars, to invite them to witness Barack Obama's inauguration.
"I'd never had imagined on being here," said an excited Martha Young, as she relished the luxury of a Washington hotel Monday as the guest of Earl Stafford, the businessman behind the innovative People's Ball.
Young said she had been "living from paycheck to paycheck. Just enough to eat and, you know, pay my bills."
She is among 300 people invited to join the inauguration festivities by Stafford, who has spared no expense in pampering his guests.
Rooms in the US capital's Marriott Hotel, evening dresses and tuxedos, manicures and buffets, an invitation to the balls and ringside seats to the festivities surrounding Tuesday's historic inauguration are all included.
"I wanted to have it open for those who otherwise would have never had the opportunity to come to Washington for the inauguration," said Stafford.
He and his Stafford Foundation turned to 35 charitable organizations across the country to select who should be among the lucky ones to take part in the People's Inauguration Project.
He booked half the rooms in the Marriott, more than 300 of them, and has filled them with hundreds of people who are down on their luck, used to a life of hard knocks and broken dreams.
Among their numbers are hurricane victims, women who fled abusive relationships, disabled adults and children living in the shadows of crippling poverty.
"I'm very, very honored. Everything is exquisite, the rooms, the gowns, the food," said blonde 20-year-old Jennifer Jeffers, chosen because of her tragic childhood, before breaking down in tears.
Bernard Henry, a 21-year-old African-American from Mobile, Alabama, admitted he had been a thug as a youngster, before turning over a new leaf to become a role model for kids in his neighborhood.
"I was kicked out of the school twice, lived a life running the streets, with drugs and alcohol and then I changed my life," he said.
Prince Brooks, 57, a homeless veteran, was in awe of his new surroundings and praised Stafford's generosity.
"He didn't have to do this. I think he was listening to his heart. We all have a spiritual self that needs to be harvested and that is what he is doing," Brooks told the Washington Post. "I applaud him for that."
In one of the hotel's sumptuous suites, a huge boutique with racks of donated and new ball-gowns and tuxedos has been set up. All of Stafford's guests can come and choose an outfit, an evening bag and a pair of exquisite heels. They are free and the guests get to keep them.
"The goal was to make it first class. To have women greet them, take them around, help them pick out, just like you would have your own stylist," said Lavern Chatman, from the National Urban League, the organization which has helped coordinate the event.
"It's Cinderella and Cinderfellows," she added, as Michael Williams a former drug addict turned social worker chose a pair of shoes to wear to Tuesday night's ball.
Martha Young, from North Carolina, who has never been to Washington in her life and lost her 21-year-old son in a street shooting, has plumped for a black satin evening gown trimmed with pearls.
"This dress is beautiful, it makes me feel beautiful," she said, clearly moved by the occasion.
"It's fabulous to watch history unfold in front of your eyes," added Carmen McNairy, from St Louis.
She will get a ringside view of Tuesday's parade after Obama has taken the oath of office as the nation's 44th president, from the bay windows of the hotel which overlook Pennsylvania Avenue linking the Capitol building to the White House.
Merry Johnson, 67, an African-American from Massachusetts, was selected for being a model granny to 51 grandchildren, and working with organizations supporting grandparents.
"I wish my mother could have come, she is 91. She couldn't believe it" when Obama was elected in the November 4 election," she said.
While the new president is not scheduled to attend, some were hoping he might put in an appearance.
Obama is hosting 10 official balls, the first of which is the Neighborhood Ball, with free tickets available to many.
It will also be linked via the Internet to other such balls around the country "bringing together neighborhoods across the country in the spirit of unity and celebration," Obama's team said.
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