MARYVILLE, Mo. — Usually an elegant evening out, the St. Francis Foundation Gala is putting on its mask and asking donors to “Stay Inn,” with a unique virtual experience focusing on raising funds for community mental health initiatives.

For its 19th annual gala, the foundation is inviting donors on a “tropical vacation … from the comfort of your Lazy Boy.” Understanding that everyone’s COVID-19 pandemic journey is different, St. Francis Foundation Development Director Megan Jennings, co-chairs Dr. Susan Watson and Kristen Peltz and other creative team members have developed an evening of entertainment that is moldable to anyone’s social distance comfort level.

Jennings told The Forum on Monday, that while some people may select to be involved in the virtual evening from home, others may take part in the event — being filmed at the Fontaine Hotel in downtown Kansas City — from the comfort of their own hotel rooms.

She reiterated that the event, filled with a mobile silent auction, real-time live auction, decadent pastries, live entertainment and local community advocates with messages of courage, strength and hope will be filmed at the hotel, but no in-person gathering will occur with donors.

Ticket purchasers will receive an in-home craft cocktail experience from the foundation that teamed up with Pitch Magazine’s “Best Bartender of 2019,” Bryan Arri, along with a kit complete with a full bottle of Rieger’s Spirit, custom cocktail syrups and accompaniments, a confectionary surprise from Maryville resident and baker Sylvia Choulpek, spa essentials, a custom Pickwick candle and many other surprises, according to the event website.

Jennings noted that she and the foundation hope that the momentum built from the previous two galas that raised funds that continue to help cancer care patients, continues into this new focus.

“We feel like we are able to create the very best possible virtual experience that we could possibly do,” she said. “If we can’t meet in person, it can’t be the regular gala, this is the next best thing.”

While the foundation is providing an evening of entertainment, the goal of this year’s gala is to raise funds for a local mental health initiative.

Later Jennings told The Forum by email that "In the current state of our country, it feels good to support and be involved in something meaningful. We know that mental health is extremely important to our communities right now and we hope this Gala offers an opportunity for our donors to get behind and support these efforts.”

She said that the need for mental health care in the region is very high and that some of the funds raised will help with completion of some projects on the hospital’s behavioral health unit, but the foundation’s primary focus for the funds will be to increase mental health services available to youths.

“Our schools are really suffering right now when it comes to mental health,” she said. “There aren’t resources available for them that they need for their students, specifically rural school districts.”

An implementation committee will be formed helmed by Watson and Peltz who have devoted more than 50 years to providing mental health services for children and young adults across northwest Missouri and continue to push for awareness, education, resources and change for this pressing health concern.

“We have some really great ideas already,” Jennings said. “We’ve gathered a lot of data.”

One of those would provide the addition of two telehealth counselors as well as devices for connecting with patients to be used throughout the northwest Missouri region’s school districts, Northwest Missouri State University and general community needs. She noted that it’s not always a lack of funding that holds back a school district from being able to provide services to students. Sometimes it’s just having access to professionals who can provide that support. Telehealth counseling would significantly decrease barriers like lack of transportation, privacy, time constraints and access to care.

“Our rural school districts are really saying that this is a lifeline for them,” Jennings said.

However, there is more need for services within the region, Jennings said and that the hospital has been working with local law enforcement, community and university leaders for quite some time, so that eventually it can grow to be available for all in the community who need help with their mental health challenges.

“We think this will be the start of what they are going to continue ongoing,” Jennings said. “It’s all of us working together. It’s a big deal and we’re all just starting together trying to move forward in a positive direction to impact change.”