Poised at the microphone, Gracyn Smith, an ELCO senior, gazed out at the audience of over 400 ready to perform at her family’s annual Cocktails for a Cure event.

Donning their cowboy hats and their western wear to fit the theme “Cocktails Goes Country,” the audience dove headfirst into Smith’s performance with only the sound of the acoustic guitar and Smith’s powerful notes piercing the airwaves. With accompaniment from Blessing & Fowler by her side, Gracyn began her act with “If It Hadn’t Been for Love,” progressing into Lee Ann Womack’s famous ballad, “I Hope You Dance.”

Heading into the chorus of “I Hope You Dance,” Gracyn Smith sings in front of the audience. (Lucy Bickel)

“This year, I chose ‘I Hope You Dance’ by Lee Ann Womack. I needed a country song because this year’s theme is country,” Gracyn said.

“The country music we hear nowadays is not really about perseverance, which is the theme I reach for each year [with my song choice], so I had to really think through the country songs that I knew, and did some research to figure out which song to sing, and I remembered this one which I actually danced to [in a recital] … so I was, like, it’s fitting, I can relate to it, and a lot of people know the song which is always better.”

Perseverance had always been a key theme in Gracyn’s life ever since she was diagnosed with a rare eye disease, retinitis pigmentosa, at the age of 5. Because Gracyn was born without the CRB1 gene, her peripheral vision has diminished overtime. Projected to lose her eyesight and become completely blind by her current age, 18, Gracyn has defied all doctor’s expectations as her straightforward vision remains fairly stable. 

“It is great to see how far she’s come,” Gracyn’s father, Scott Smith, said. “When we first talked to the doctor, there was no hope, no nothing, and she was going blind. Here we are how many years later and she still sees. She lost her peripheral vision, but she still sees straight ahead. She’s the toughest person I know.” 

Although there currently is no cure for retinitis pigmentosa, Smith’s family joined the Curing Retinal Blindness Foundation’s (CRBF’s) efforts to fundraise towards research for a cure. With the first Cocktails of 75 attendees beginning eight years ago at the Tulpehocken Manor, the event grew and changed venues to the Lebanon Expo, doubling in size since their last event pre-pandemic in 2019.

Receiving donations from patrons and local businesses, each Cocktails for a Cure event climaxed with auctions, both silent and live, with Smith’s animated and lively grandfather, Bob Smith, as the auctioneer. From trips to the Outer Banks to opening-day Eagles tickets, the event brought in thousands of dollars in revenue with all of the profits going towards research for a cure. 

Not only were the items for auction displayed for all to see but even more so was the family and community atmosphere. The event had no paid employees; the Smith family and their friends volunteered their time to make the event go off without a hitch. Passing the torch, the Smith’s priceless support of each other was felt across the giant expo room as Gracyn’s eldest brother, Brayden Smith, outbid his opponent to snag his Grandpa’s vintage striped button-down at the live auction for $500.

“We start with a committee, develop our theme for the year, and then we start reaching out to businesses for sponsorships and donations,” Gracyn’s mother, Tricia Smith, said. “I get to work on this event with my best friends, so I think that is definitely a big plus. Cocktails has also brought our family a lot closer together. We all come together to rally around Gracyn, and this year, she’s going to have all of her best friends around her as well, so that’s going to be a very special moment.”

During the live auction, Gracyn’s grandfather, Bob Smith, auctions off two of his vintage shirts modeled by Gracyn’s brother, Dawson Smith, and family friend Connor Shaak. (Lucy Bickel)

“It’s awesome to see how everyone comes together and how this whole event starts and turns into this is fantastic … all of these things [up for auction] are donations. Every year, I think How do we top this event? and we do every year. I’m very proud of my daughter for organizing this event,” Tricia’s mother, Deb Weatherholtz, said.

Gracyn’s painting “Spring in Bloom” sold for $2600 at the live auction. (Lucy Bickel)

As the band wrapped up their set at the end of the night, the totals were counted and were estimated to exceed the $48,000 they raised in 2019. Lighting up the night with flashlights on their phones as they made a donation, the attendees’ contributions went towards CRBF’s Fund the Finish Line campaign.

Although CRBF hopes to raise $3 million in 2022 toward clinical trials, no price tag was sufficient for the support Gracyn felt from the community.

“To feel that big of a support system and to see the work that people put into this event, like taking days off of work and researching how to register people with the new online software, is just insane. I’m so grateful that everyone can do that,” she said. 

Want to join the cause and help find a cure for retinitis pigmentosa? 

  • Come to next year’s Cocktails for a Cure Event! It will be held on April 15, 2023. More details will be shared next February. To make a donation as a patron or a business to the cause, or ask questions about the event, please feel free to contact Tricia Smith at (717) 821-2804.
  • Donate to the cause! Make a donation today at https://crb1.org
  • Purchase items from Gracyn’s SeeSide Clothing Line, with all proceeds benefiting CRB1 research! Her summer collection will be debuting later this year.
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