IT’S ALMOST THAT TIME: A history of SWHC’s Celebrity Waiter fundraiser

Where else can somebody see Olympians interacting with roller derby girls, people dressed from the Roaring Twenties and yellow, suspender-wearing minions from the film, “Despicable Me”?

From last year's Celebrity Waiter fundraiser dinner.  (File Photos by Bryce Martin | Pioneer)
From last year’s Celebrity Waiter fundraiser dinner. (File Photos by Bryce Martin | Pioneer)

By Bryce Martin | Pioneer Editor |

Where else can somebody see Olympians interacting with roller derby girls, people dressed from the Roaring Twenties and yellow, suspender-wearing minions from the film, “Despicable Me”? Or somewhere people dressed for a 1980s prom can spot a person pulling a toboggan filled with Jamaican bobsledders?

Only at Celebrity Waiter, a raucous event held at the Four Seasons in Bowman that certainly lives up to its hype each year.

Celebrity Waiter is billed as the event of the season, according to Katie Harris, this year’s chairperson of the Southwest Healthcare Services (SWHC) fundraiser. Since its inception in 2009, the one-night Celebrity Waiter fundraiser has become a staunch hit in the community, with vivid generosity from the area as its cornerstone.

The event is just as much a social one with friends, old and new, coming together to promote community health care.

The event has redefined the meaning of what a fundraiser is with each passing year.

Employees of Southwest Healthcare in Bowman come together each year to plan for the massive event—last year raised over $100,000—months before it is scheduled, traditionally for late February. Harris said the timing is right for the event to serve “as an out” right at the brink of calving season, bull sales and midway through the winter’s blustery blues. This year’s event will be held Feb. 28.

“It takes a lot of work to get the event going,” said Harris, supervisor of the laboratory at SWHC.

But the team behind Celebrity Waiter didn’t always have long to plan for the event. When it was first started six years ago, the event’s planning committee was given only three weeks to create an event that the community would find appealing.

The team pulled it off and Celebrity Waiter blossomed into something many look forward to each year.

A former administrator at SWHC brought the idea of such a fundraising event to Harris and her co-workers six years ago. For years prior to the creation of the event in 2009, SWHC—known then as St. Luke’s Hospital—hosted an annual Harvest Ball, but it was a far cry from what Celebrity Waiter transformed into.

The Harvest Ball fizzled quickly due to its prohibitive costs—back then it was just a dinner and dance.

Celebrity Waiter was a welcome replacement, culminating in an interesting and creative auction-costume-party-dinner-Happy-Hour hybrid to raise funds “for a good cause,” Harris said.

The first Celebrity Waiter didn’t have an entertainment act, but it still sold about 200 tickets and raised nearly $14,000 for SWHC. As he has continued to do for several years, Andy Mrnak acted as auctioneer for the event’s first live auction.

“We were ecstatic,” Harris said of the first year’s success, which she attributed to the committee “pounding the pavement.”

After that first year, Harris said she continued to be overwhelmed by the event’s response, and just as ecstatic.

A few Celebrity Waiters later, the committee had four artists on stage during the event, creating paintings that would be auctioned later in the evening. Throughout the event, people could watch the artists’ creative process.

In addition to funds from the event’s yearly ticket sales, a majority of the night’s proceeds come from the live and silent auctions. Hundreds of items are donated from businesses and individuals leading up to the event.

Last year, a bidding war ensued between Justin Wolbaum, president of Dakota Community Bank and Trust, and Dan Swanson, owner of Southwest Ag Inc. in Bowman, over a painting donated by popular local artist Marsha Lehman. Swanson conceded to Wolbaum’s initial high-dollar bid. Much to the audience’s surprise and delight, Wolbaum then immediately donated the painting to be re-auctioned. Swanson got it that time. After all said and done, the painting went for a whooping $13,000 from the two auctions.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” Harris said with a laugh.

Lehman is donating another painting for this year’s event.

It has become such a celebrated event that “people are actually coming to us” with donations, Harris said.

Deb Patterson of Bowman sold tickets during last year’s Celebrity Waiter for the raffle of her late husband Bert’s 2012 Dodge Challenger. Half of the money raised from the ticket sales was donated to the Celebrity Waiter Committee and half to Southwest Healthcare.

“It’s truly all about the community’s generosity,” Harris said.

After last year’s 410 tickets were sold and tens-of-thousands of dollars raised, SWHC was able to make several purchases that proved instrumental to furthering its role in providing critical community care. Items such as new patient bed tables, burn and decompression kits, thermometers, monitors and much more were purchased after recommendations from various departments were given to the Celebrity Waiter’s planning committee. Last year, Sarah Wolbaum, Heather Bird, and Danielle Pierce served as the committee’s chairs.

Harris returns this year as the sole chairperson of the event, after several years off. She and her committee members arranged a special dueling pianos act for this year’s entertainment.

The event is a testament to the dedication and creativity of SWHC’s employees, she said. “If it weren’t for them, the event couldn’t go on.”

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