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Fully supported by Radio One Founder and Chairperson Cathy Hughes (Radio One Inc. is the parent company of, VA entrepreneur Earl Stafford has successfully launched the People’s Inaugural Project, bringing together disadvantaged citizens to Washington to participate in the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama.

From USA Today:

WASHINGTON — They arrive Sunday from 22 states for a luxurious three-night stay in the nation’s capital.

They’ll occupy more than 335 rooms with 37-inch flat-panel TVs, 300-count sheets, down comforters and feather pillows at the JW Marriott Washington with unobstructed views of Tuesday’s Inaugural Parade down Pennsylvania Avenue from a heated, glass-enclosed 12th-floor terrace.

They’ll select gowns and tuxedos from racks of formalwear wheeled in just for them.

The tab for all that: zero.

Stafford, by his own estimate, has written checks for more than $1.6 million to underwrite his People’s Inaugural Project — a sprawling effort to bring more than 400 disadvantaged citizens to Washington to participate in the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama.

He expects the final tally to be $2 million by the time he finishes hosting the three-day gathering for people he describes as “marginalized” by society — disabled veterans, indigent children, the terminally ill, battered women, the disadvantaged, the homeless and the elderly. “When things are good, people don’t need philanthropy as much. It’s when the economy has a great downturn, as today, that businesses need to step up,” says Stafford, the son of a Baptist minister who is motivated by his Christian faith. “People are hurting, and no one is bailing out the people. We must become our brothers’ keepers, indeed.”

Seminars for attendees mixed in with the fun

In addition to providing transportation, lodging and food and even barbers and beauticians for the underserved, Stafford has shelled out thousands more to make sure his guests are as comfortable as possible in the rarefied air of ceremonial Washington. He’ll host about 1,000 people or more at four events, including a prayer breakfast and a luncheon on Monday, at which Martin Luther King III will speak, and two Inaugural Balls on Tuesday — one for youth, the other for adults. “We just want to be obedient to what the Lord wants us to do,” he says.

At every event, at least one-third of the attendees will be disadvantaged. The rest will be people of “means” — business leaders, community leaders, celebrities and politicians invited by Stafford. The goal: to bring together people from all strata of society. “We want those with millions in the bank interacting and worshipping and celebrating with those who only have pennies in their pockets.”

The oldest attendee, Rachel Tucker of nearby Alexandria, Va., will get the royal treatment complete with a limousine ride from her home to the hotel and head-to-toe outfit provided by Nordstrom.

Over the three days, the People’s Inaugural Project will offer seminars on topics ranging from budgeting, to life and work skills, to health care. Stafford will have counselors, doctors, social workers and business people assisting those who come. “It would be a sin if we brought these people in their distressed situations and brought them to a party, to festivities and celebrations, and sent them home in the same condition as they came. We would be patronizing and using these people,” he says.

Once his guests return home, they’ll continue to be supported by the non-profit Stafford Foundation, as well as service organizations in their home communities. Stafford says his foundation will stay in touch with them “as much as possible” and connect them with resources as needed.

Stafford, 60, will remain chairman of the foundation but will focus much of his time on his new venture funding start-up, the Wentworth Group in Reston, Va., that will — among other things — help the underserved go into business for themselves.

Stafford sold his previous company, Unitech, a Centreville, Va., company that provides military weapons and training simulations, to Lockheed Martin for an undisclosed sum. The company had estimated revenue of $150 million in 2008. The sale closed last Friday.

And he sold the business while working 16-hour days alongside his coalition partners and family to bring the People’s Inaugural Project to fruition.

How a $1 million idea came about

The project started small, just the germ of an idea that came to him last March — that he should direct a chunk of his fortune to helping the underserved. In August, he cornered the presidential suite at the Hay-Adams Hotel, just across Lafayette Park from the White House to host a party for the underserved on Inauguration Day. “Get some food, have it catered, make it nice and then we’d go on our way,” he thought.

That all changed two months later at home in his kitchen when his brother-in-law told him about an inaugural package offered by the JW Marriott Washington: Pay $1 million and get 300 rooms, four suites, $200,000 of food and drinks and a protected rooftop view of the Inaugural Parade route. The next day, Stafford bought the package. “As a company, we’re honored that Mr. Stafford chose this hotel for such a selfless act as helping other people,” says Erick Speight, Marriott senior sales executive.

Once news of his plans to include the underserved was out, Stafford and his foundation were overwhelmed. More than 7,000 calls, e-mails and messages came into his non-profit foundation either requesting tickets, nominating individuals or offering to support the cause by volunteering. Hundreds even rang his home, some just to thank him.

Stafford, who refused to take money from lobbyists, estimates that individuals have donated $25,000 to $30,000 to the project. “We had so many volunteers that there was no way to accommodate them all,” he says.

To spread word of the project and identify people to bring to Washington, Stafford enlisted the help of several organizations that are working with him pro bono, including media company Radio One, public affairs company DCI Group, the National Urban League, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and the Institute for Responsible Citizenship.

Through contacts at more than three dozen community groups with outreach efforts around the country, the coalition culled a list of the disadvantaged who would be invited to Washington.

Cathy Hughes, founder and chairperson of Radio One, is thrilled to be part of the People’s Inaugural Project because “it is in the same vein as our mission statement” since the company’s beginnings in 1980. For years, Radio One hosted a similar event in the Washington area called the Dream Feast, a catered meal where up to 500 homeless people would dine and interact with business and community leaders.

“Exposing individuals to various things that their plight in life normally excludes them from is the very best inspiration for them,” she says. Hughes, whose company donated a variety of media and entertainment services to the project, will attend the ball with nationally syndicated radio host and philanthropist Tom Joyner and singer James Ingram.

Stafford, who donated to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, says the People’s Inaugural Project is not about politics, it’s about helping others and putting faith into action. “People today who are in need, who are losing their homes, who have no jobs, who are homeless, they don’t care about your political affiliation, they just need your help. Corporate America has to wake up to that call.”

Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies President Ralph Everett believes that more businesses will get involved with faith-based organizations in response to Obama’s efforts to encourage service to others. “It takes everybody.”

In the midst of the worst economic recession in more than 70 years and a downturn in individual and corporate giving, Virginia businessman and entrepreneur Earl Stafford is bucking the trend. Instead of cutting back, he’s giving big to those who have the least.