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Weekend Escape in Virginia Offers Respite from the Stress of MS

September 21, 2016

Before the evening ball, Suzanne O'Connell announces into the microphone a necessary ritual that must first take place: the fashion parade. It’s these few moments when each camper approaches the front of the room in their formal wear, when all eyes are focused on them, that O'Connell hopes will make each person living with MS feel special.

Ughondi Hamlor of Brookneal, 50, smiles as she enters the dance floor for her turn in the fashion parade to show off the dress she picked out from Cinderella’s Closet with her niece, Destini Hamlor, and others during the MS (Multiple Sclerosis) Weekend Escape, also known as the Brian Mason Respite Camp, at the W.E. Skelton 4-H Educational Conference Center at Smith Mountain Lake on Sept. 10.

Hamlor was diagnosed with MS in 2004 and subsequently became involved with the Lynchburg MS support group in 2012. This was her fifth year attending the camp. “It’s sort of like a family reunion. It’s Multiple Sclerosis but I call it Miracle Spirit,” Hamlor said. Hamlor attends every year with her sister, Audrey Jones, and niece for the getaway.

The 20-year-old camp is hosted by Brian Mason, regional president for Southwest Virginia of Atlantic Bay Mortgage, and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and gives “MS patients and their caregivers a chance to relax and take a break from the stresses of the everyday life of living with MS,” according to MS Alliance of Virginia’s website.

About 200 people attended the camp Sept. 9-11, including those who live with MS, their care partners, family, friends, volunteers, paid staff, nurses and aides. It was organized this year by Paul Kingston, senior manager of programs and services of the National MS Society.

Cinderella’s Closet, an event within the camp, was created to enhance the weekend experience by allowing people with MS to feel pampered when it’s typically not put at the “top of the list,” according to Suzanne O'Connell, the closet’s organizer and president and founder of the nonprofit MS Alliance of Virginia.
The closet, now in its fourth year, was born from an idea by O'Connell and her friend Kristi Litchard. After dressing up while vacationing on a cruise, O'Connell, who has lived with MS for over 30 years, said she felt renewed and as though she had a piece of her life back.

An army of about 20 volunteers assisted with this year’s closet, helping attendees pick from about 1,000 dresses and suits to wear to an evening dance. The clothes were altered if needed. The formal wear is donated from various places each year, including their largest donor, Nicky’s Resale Fashions in Christiansburg, Plato’s Closet and individuals offering personal donations. O'Connell also keeps an eye out for deals at the Discovery Shop.
In addition to the fancy attire, makeup, hair and nails are another treat. Employees of Azario Salon and Day Spa, an instructor and students from Miller-Motte Technical College and Mary Kay makeup artists all contributed their skills to help pamper participants. Azario owner Zena Azar cut and colored hair for winners of a complete makeover on the first day of camp.

“Cinderella’s Closet is so magical, the people that arrive at the camp are not the ones who leave. They feel beautiful, special, empowered. It changes their appearance for one night but their life for weeks, months and even years,” said O'Connell, who has attended the camp on and off for the past 15 years.

Most of MS Alliance of Virginia’s events are held for free or at a low cost to attendees to make it easier for people living with MS to have fun, O'Connell added. The MS Alliance of Virginia was created by way of the Roanoke Valley MS Support Group, which was first formed out of a need for a local support group in Southwest Virginia.

A designer bag and wool sale to raise money for Cinderella’s Closet events will be held Oct. 7-8 at the Holiday Inn off Starkey Road in Roanoke County. The sale will open Oct. 7 from 5 to 10 p.m. and continue Oct. 8 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nearly 300 vintage name-brand leather bags, including Coach, Fossil and Kenneth Cole, as well as sweaters and scarves, will be available for purchase. For more information, call 404-1167 or visit www.msallianceofvirginia.org.