Make-A-Wish prepares for biggest fund-raiser of the year

Former Yankee great David Cone, at left, and event co-chair John Filippelli are all smiles at last year's fund-raiser.

Former Yankee great David Cone, at left, and event co-chair John Filippelli are all smiles at last year’s fund-raiser.

For grantees of Make-A-Wish Connecticut, dreams really do come true, and the organization is working to ensure that’s the case for future wish recipients with its annual Celebrating Wishes Ball, to be held Nov. 2 at the Greenwich Country Club.

The Make-A-Wish Foundation of America is an organization that grants the wishes of children diagnosed with life-threatening medical conditions in the United States and its territories. The Connecticut chapter alone grants approximately 150 wishes per year, at an average cost of $10,000 each, to local children, according to the president and CEO of the Connecticut chapter, Mike Burke.

In order to continue providing these wishes, he said, the organization relies on benefits like the Celebrating Wishes Ball, the largest fund-raiser of the year, which raises roughly $500,000 at the annual event, with 82 cents per dollar going directly to the cause.

The ball is held on the first Saturday in November each year, featuring a dinner, live and silent auctions and dancing, with the hope of informing as many people as possible about Make-A-Wish Connecticut and the children it serves, Mr. Burke said. The event sells out every year, he said, attracting 400 “stakeholders from all walks of life” who purchase sponsor tables, community tables and individual tickets.

Held for the last several years at the Greenwich Country Club, the ball has been hosted at the perfect venue, Mr. Burke said. Though it is important to have plenty of supporters, it is also crucial that those in attendance not only have fun but feel as though they are a part of something important, and the country club is the ideal size for such an atmosphere, he said.

In addition to the popular auctions, which feature wine, sports memorabilia and unique opportunities, one of the highlights of the event is a presentation by a Make-A-Wish recipient, Mr. Burke said. This year, local wish recipients Blake Katz of Westport, who was granted a trip to the Galapagos Islands to swim with penguins, and Alex Newton of Darien, who was granted a trip to Maui, Hawaii, to explore its rain forests and waterfalls, will both be honored, along with their families. Each of the boys will get on stage to speak about his wish and what it meant to him, Mr. Burke said. In addition, the boys will each create an auction item, which is a popular bid each year, likely in the form of artwork, he said.

The community is dedicated to the ball, which was attested to at last year’s event, held right after Superstorm Sandy tore through Greenwich, Mr. Burke said. Although organizers weren’t sure they could pull it off, those who run the event committee gave it their best shot, setting up generators and emergency services at the country club, which was like an oasis in town at the time, he said.

To the organization’s delight, those who traditionally attend the event were there, along with others whose activities had been canceled. If the ball hadn’t taken place, it would have been “devastating” to the organization’s ability to help local children, Mr. Burke said. “Everyone turned out for the kids” and Make-A-Wish Connecticut is exceedingly grateful for the community’s support every year, he said.

The ball was established by Greenwich residents Gina and John Filippelli, whose son, Pierce, was a wish recipient in 2004. After witnessing the power of Make-A-Wish’s services, the couple, along with Pierce and his older brother, organized the benefit with friends in order to give back to other local children. In an interview with the Post, Ms. Filippelli explained that Pierce had been diagnosed with life-threatening cancer at age 14. His wish, to meet Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, was eventually granted and the entire family was flown to the San Francisco Bay area for a tour of Apple’s headquarters.

The trip included a tour of each of the company’s departments, including a walk through research and development, which was home to some top-secret products veiled by black cloths, which Ms. Filippelli believes were early models of the iPhone and iPad, she said.

When it came time for Pierce’s meeting with Mr. Jobs, he was prepared for what the organization said would likely be a 20- to 30-minute meet-and-greet, Ms. Filippelli said. It was more than two hours later, however, that Pierce emerged from his talk with the legendary CEO. Although to this day, at age 23, Pierce keeps the conversation mostly private, the two talked a lot about life and life’s journey in their time together, Ms. Filippelli said. In fact, the pair kept in touch via email for some time after Pierce’s wish was granted.

Though each wish is specifically tailored to exactly what the young recipient wants, the whole family gets to be involved, and the experience inspired the Filippellis to pay it forward, Ms. Filippelli said.

“We fell in love with Make-A-Wish, so being a wish family made it very easy to give back,” she said.

Fortunately, Mr. Filippelli, who is the president of production and programming for the YES Network, has gotten support from a number of co-workers who assist with and attend the Celebrating Wishes Ball each year, Ms. Filippelli said. Major League Baseball legend David Cone, Yankees analyst Jack Curry, broadcaster and former MLB player John Flaherty, and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo from Sirius Radio are just a few of the big names who help make the event a success each year. In addition, Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay and his wife, news anchor Jodi Applegate, serve as the ball’s emcees.

The great thing about the event is that it not only assists Greenwich residents but also a major portion of children in lower Fairfield County who are battling life-threatening illnesses, Ms. Filippelli said. With so many worthy charities out there, she added, she’s grateful that Make-A-Wish receives so much support.

The event is very genuine,” Ms. Filippelli said. “And what a gift to give to children.”


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