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story.lead_photo.caption With both having medical/health backgrounds, Drs. Ronda S. Henry-Tillman and Pebbles Fagan couldn’t have been better choices to steer the annual Holiday Jazz Brunch, a first-weekend-in-December tradition of the Little Rock Chapter of Links Inc., in the midst of a pandemic. The women made sure that the virtual incarnation of the brunch, a two-day event Dec. 4-5, will hold all the excitement of its predecessors. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

Drs. Ronda S. Henry-Tillman and Pebbles Fagan knew the show had to go on. And they had the brains, the heart and the courage to make it happen,

"The show," being the annual Holiday Jazz Brunch hosted by the Little Rock Chapter of The Links Inc. The 2020 edition -- "Virtual Holiday Jazz Brunch in the Emerald City" -- bears a theme of high hopes and dreams and a love of "home," with the apropos overlay of spectacle and pageantry.

Proceeds from ticket sales and sponsorships benefit the White Rose Foundation, the charitable giving arm of the chapter.

Henry-Tillman, a surgical oncologist and chief of breast oncology at the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences; and Fagan, professor and director of the Center for the Study of Tobacco, Department of Health Behavior and Health Education at UAMS's Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health, agreed to co-chair the event before covid-19 hit.

"[Henry-Tillman] and I work in the medical profession ... [so] you just kind of make the adjustment," Fagan says. "We continued to plan when covid-19 happened. Nobody could have predicted it to be so bad, but we had been preparing for covid-19 back in February, the two of us, because of what we were seeing ... in terms of the cases and the trends. We're looking at it from our public health and medical lens and seeing what's happened in other places, knowing that we were getting ready to face a big problem.

"But we continued to plan. We never stopped planning the event at all, because the community comes first. And our job is to make sure that we raise funds" to help the community.

THE WOMEN BEHIND THE CURTAIN

The Links started off preparing an in-person event but had a contingency plan in case the pandemic worsened. They came to realize they'd indeed have to go with Plan B. "The big thing to me about planning a virtual event is that you have to have people with different skill sets," Henry-Tillman says, adding that she'd never been involved with some of the things that had to occur to make this come together. She believes she and Fagan have worked well as co-chairs because of their different skill sets. "I'm a person that talks all the time; I like to call people. She is excellent with the I.T. [information technology] and the computer design and all that stuff."

Henry-Tillman recalls people asking how they were going to pull off a virtual fashion show. The one thing she knew: It would have to happen. "We tried to do this without a fashion show once," and they got a lot of feedback that indicated that they needed to keep that element of the event.

Luckily, The Links had an advantage in that they were able to pick up tips from other organizations that did virtual events early on. Also, the chapter has 43 members; all are serving on one subcommittee or another, Henry-Tillman adds. She gives kudos to Timmons, a member who goes only by her last name, with providing the venue for the virtual magic to happen ... Westwind, the expansive North Little Rock facility she oversees and the site of a forthcoming school for performing arts.

"That gave us a lot of flexibility," Henry-Tillman says. "We couldn't have done this at the Marriott."

She points out that the women have stayed busy with more than just jazz brunch plans. Because of all The Links are doing for the community, "we felt strongly that we shouldn't bow down to covid."

"And we've never stopped," Fagan says. "When covid happened and the pandemic first broke out, we were doing mask programs, we were doing hunger-relief programs. We were trying to figure out where the needs were within the community."

As part of the covid-19 mask protection program, The Links provided masks to middle schools, the Arkansas Medical Dental Pharmaceutical Association, and historically Black colleges and universities.

And its scholarship program has blossomed. As shown on The Links' website, littlerocklinks.org, the chapter has eight scholarship recipients. "This is the first time since 2015. When the program first started, we had five young women," Fagan says. "Now we have eight. This is the first year, with covid-19, that we have awarded eight women [scholarships], sending them to college, because we know it's really important to our educational mission to make sure that young African American women have the opportunity to go to college.

"We still do our arts. We are still involved in educating people from a health perspective. So covid has not put a stop to the work; the strength of our chapter shows within this community."

EASING ON DOWN THE ROAD

"And even now," Fagan continues, "we are in the midst of doing our reading program," buying books for children to read. "We always have an organization that we work with, for children who are displaced. And we make sure that they have gifts during Christmas ... So none of our work has stopped, and the need is so great. And that's why this fundraiser is so important."

The chapter's goal is to raise $120,000, Fagan says. "If we can meet that goal, we can do ... much more giving than we've ever done."

Besides the fact that it's virtual, the jazz brunch also brings the newness of being a two-day event this time around, the women say.

"When planning virtual events, you don't want them to go on too long," Fagan says. So on Dec. 4, they're broadcasting a happy hour starting at 6 p.m. Genine LaTrice Perez will perform. Sonta Jean, air personality for KOKY-FM, 102.1, will be mistress of ceremonies. Viewers will learn about Link chapter programs and participate in a drawing.

The first thing that will happen, however, is the online silent auction; it will open Dec. 2, the Wednesday before the event, and will continue through Dec. 5. The traditional holiday jazz brunch, 11 a.m. that day and emceed by KLRT, Channel 16's Donna Terrell Lambert, will feature a dance performance by the Fulfheel.ing Experience, powered by the Born Artistically Bold Co., and a fashion show displaying the creative genius of Korto Momolu and Ruby Black-Moore of Ruby Ru Designs. Members will be wearing their own designs as well. Music will be provided by vocalist Nicky Parrish.

PARTY OVER HERE (IN OZ)!

The jazz brunch festivities will be broadcast on a private streaming platform. Ticketholders will get that information and be able to "click on" and see the event. They're encouraged to don festive green attire and hold watch parties at home as well as Zoom parties with their friends. Online party aids consist of recipes for appetizers and drinks; a "Wiz" trivia game; and an "Emerald City" playlist on Spotify.

"We're looking forward to people just having a good time," Fagan says. "We want to lift people's spirits. ... We want to feed them with the spirit of giving, and the spirit of joy, spirit of happiness and spirit of gratitude because we're very grateful." They're especially grateful to the donors and sponsors who have come back year after year.

"We know people have a spirit of giving. We know they're not going to shy away just because of covid-19," Fagan adds. "One of the things about giving is that even when people are having difficult times, they know somebody else is probably having [a worse time than they]. So they will give whether it's $5, $25, $50 ... We know people have this beautiful spirit on the inside, and they're going to give whether or not they have a little bit, or if they have a lot.

"The most important thing is that we're going to do what we do."

Holiday Jazz Happy Hour, 6 p.m. Dec. 4; Holiday Jazz Brunch 11 a.m. Dec. 5. Online silent auction opens noon December 2; bidding closes noon, Dec. 5. Individual tickets, $50, and sponsorships are available at one.bidpal.net/lrlinks2020.

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