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Tony-winner Ben Vereen set to ‘bring the joy’ to Mary Free Bed Gala

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Ben Vereen is a legendary singer, dancer and actor known for his razzle-dazzle smile and bigger-than-life personality. But when he visits Grand Rapids in November, his appearance will be less about entertaining and more about spreading a message of hope.

Vereen is the special guest at the fourth annual Mary Free Bed Foundation Gala Nov. 2 at DeVos Place in Grand Rapids – and he can’t wait.

“I’ll bring the joy,” he said. “We’ll have a wonderful time.”

Guests can expect to hear stories from Vereen’s stellar 50-plus year career spanning stage and screen. A Tony Award winner for his performance in “Pippin,” Vereen’s versatile range of performances includes “Wicked” and “Hair” on Broadway, the big screen’s “All That Jazz” and TV’s acclaimed miniseries “Roots,” among scores of others. The tireless 70-year-old song-and-dance man also presents masterclasses and lectures, and appears in concert all over the world.

Vereen’s appearance at the foundation gala will feature some songs, a little dance and a great deal of inspiration. That’s because, a few years ago, he didn’t know if he would ever sing or dance again.

In 1992, Vereen was walking along the Pacific Coast Highway near his home in Malibu, Calif., when he was struck by a car. He sustained multiple critical injuries and was hospitalized for several weeks before transferring to the Kessler Institute, a rehabilitation hospital in West Orange, N.J., near where he had a second home.

“There was a certain amount of fear. Where was I going? What was going to happen to me? Who are these people?” Vereen said. “When I was first introduced to physical and occupational therapy when I was at Kessler, I was frightened … what I discovered is that we inspire one another. By being inspired by the therapists, we inspire them.”

His prognosis unclear, Vereen spent several months in intensive rehabilitation.

“When I was going through my rebirth, I called my friend (entertainer) Chita Rivera and I said ‘Chita, will I ever dance again? There was a long pause, and she said ‘Yes, you’ll dance again. But you’ll dance differently – and Vive La Différence!’”

Vereen is the field of rehabilitation’s biggest cheerleader, calling it “guiding the spirit to the ability where it can exist in a form that is chosen.”

“We don’t choose certain things in our lives to happen, but they happen,” he said. “You catch us when we fall. You’re there for the love and care that people need when they’re broken.”

Rehabilitation is physical, he said, but “it’s the spiritual thing that helps us through.”

“We may not like (what’s happened to us), but we’ve got life,” Vereen said. “And I try to be an example by living my life.”

While he made a remarkable recovery, Vereen has continued therapy as needed over the years. He said he’s helping Kessler start a wheelchair dancing component. He was excited to learn that Mary Free Bed’s Wheelchair & Adaptive Sports Program offers a ballroom dancing class for people with disabilities.

“Our charge is to help each other through,” Vereen said. “We encourage each other to go higher.”

When: 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2
Where: DeVos Place, 303 Monroe Ave. NW, Grand Rapids
Details: The gala is the foundation’s premiere fundraising event. Proceeds support programs, therapies and patient care that restores hope, freedom and independence.
The “ties and heels” event begins at 6 p.m. with a cocktail reception. Dinner will be served at 7 p.m., followed by the program at 8 p.m. Dancing will follow.
Tickets: $200 per person, available at www.maryfreebed.com/gala. Deadline is Oct. 20.
More info: 616.840.8204

Mary Free Bed is a not-for-profit, nationally accredited, rehabilitation hospital. For more than 125 years, Mary Free Bed has restored hope and freedom through rehabilitation for children and adults who have experienced brain injuries, strokes, spinal cord injuries, multiple traumas, amputations, cancer and other diagnoses. The combination of comprehensive services and an exclusive focus on rehabilitation enables specialty physicians and staff to help patients achieve outstanding clinical results. For additional information, visit maryfreebed.com.

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