By Jennifer Mistrot and Michelle Griego

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — It was a much smaller affair than the galas of years past, but Students Rising Above‘s 17th annual fundraiser at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in San Francisco brought star power with a lot of heart. The live-streamed event treated its virtual crowd to a special appearance by none other than George Washington himself, played by Darnell Abraham, star of San Francisco’s production of Hamilton.

“It gives me great joy to spend this evening with you all together,” declared Abraham as he addressed the fundraiser’s virtual guests. Later he told KPIX 5’s Michelle Griego in an exclusive interview,  “This event with SRA is … to say [to the students] that we have not forgotten about you, the hard work, the sacrifices that you have made. And so this is your moment.”

It was an emotional moment for featured speaker and SRA alum Tyisha Higgins, who teared up recalling how the non-profit helped her as a young teen cope with the loss of her father from AIDS and her mother from breast cancer.

“The organization has meant so much to me over the years and was pretty much the reason why college happened for me,” explained Higgins. “I am just honored and humbled that I would, you know, move people in a way that people would actually want to hear my story.”

LEARN MORE: Students Rising Above

KPIX 5 has brought stories like Higgins’ to Bay Area viewers for nearly 20 years, thanks to former KPIX 5 anchor and SRA co-founder Wendy Tokuda.

“We hear these voices that are unheard and we see people who are invisible most of the time. And it’s important to tell these stories,” said Tokuda. “[So] when we started [SRA] we wondered would anyone send in money and then they did, and then people wanted to volunteer and then it kept growing.”

And the non-profit expanded at its fundraiser, too. While virtual gala guests dined on hand-delivered meals from Mina Family Kitchen, the Ritz Carlton, which was closed due to COVID-19, opened its doors just for the event and donated over $400,000, helping to pave the way for  79 college freshman this fall.

“Everyone who is a partner of SRA cares deeply about students and their futures and the community at large,” said SRA’s Chief Executive Officer Elizabeth Devaney. “So we’re incredibly grateful.”

Abraham said he found out about SRA’s fundraiser when some of its scholars attended a showing of Hamilton. SRA then reached out to him on social media and asked that he participate in the fundraiser. Abraham said it was an honor to do so.

“[SRA is] building a legacy and making a positive impact that will stay with the students for the rest of their lives,” said Abraham.

Michelle Griego