It’s a party replete with fancy hats, seersucker suits, mint juleps and lots of fun. This is the annual Derby Day party – Atlanta’s biggest Kentucky Derby-themed fundraising event and a Shepherd Center tradition since 1983.
That’s when Shepherd Center co-founder Alana Shepherd invited a group of young adults – ages 22 to 35 – to a gathering at the hospital, soliciting their advice on how to broaden Shepherd Center’s base of support to a younger generation. At that meeting, she gave them an assignment – come up with a new way to raise money for Shepherd Center. From that challenge, volunteers John Dryman and Danne Munford came up with Derby Day, Shepherd Center’s first, and now one of the most venerable fundraising events.
As for the young adults who shaped the idea, they came together to form Shepherd’s Junior Committee. That group has organized the annual Derby Day party every year with the leadership of two co-chairs. For more than 30 years, Derby Day has stood the test of time as a festive event with food and drink, a silent and live auction, lawn and casino games, live music and huge TV screens to view the broadcast of the Kentucky Derby.
The inaugural event – pulled together in just three months by then co-chairs Betsy Akers and Danny Yates – was held at Rock Mill Farm in Alpharetta. Through the years, the venues have changed to different horse parks around metro Atlanta. To get to the event, attendees usually met at Shepherd Center to ride a bus to the venue and then back home again. In 2014, the Junior Committee decided to bring the event inside the Atlanta city limits to the Chastain Horse Park, giving attendees more flexibility on when they arrived. That decision increased attendance from 800 at the Conyers Horse Park in 2013 to 1,300 in 2014 and 2015.
“Bringing it inside the city almost doubled attendance,” says Cara Roxland, annual giving officer for the Shepherd Center Foundation. “It attracts more people because they don’t have to take a bus out to the party, and they can decide at the last minute to come.”
It also provided buildings – instead of tents – for the high level sponsors. Cara estimates that Derby Day nets about $90,000 a year, and over its 34-year history, it has raised an incredible $4.5 million. The money raised directly benefits patients by going exclusively to Shepherd Center’s Recreation Therapy program. The largest program of its kind in the country, recreation therapists help patients get back into the community by taking them on outings, teaching leisure skills and developing other skills needed in everyday life.