In life, often the grandest and greatest acts of kindness come from a simple and small question. That’s how The Walton Family of Levittown Fundraiser started… how it ended was anything but simple or small.
Since becoming a licensed Zumba® Fitness instructor, I have been fortunate enough to participate in several great charity or fundraising events that have often been on a national or global level; whether it is raising money to help Haiti after their earthquake, Japan after their tsunami or any one of the national health related organizations (breast cancer, heart disease and leukemia).
To me, nothing is more rewarding than being involved in the community based events. Earlier this year I was part of a local Valley Stream community event that raised $3,500 as well as a Garden City community event that raised $11,000. These were tremendous accomplishments and I was honored to be a part of them.
Hurricane Irene was nothing more than a windy day that left me without television for an hour and many of us here on Long Island did not realize the impact this natural disaster had on the Eastern Coast. It wasn’t until my friend Eileen posted some photos on Facebook of how serious some of the damage Hurricane Irene had in fact caused here on the Eastern Coast.
I wondered to myself and jokingly questioned on Facebook if Zumba® Fitness Instructors in other countries were quickly getting together to plan local fundraisers to help out American victims of Hurricane Irene. Within the population of the world, we have always been regarded as a nation that is capable of taking care of itself and has always been quick and kind in helping out other areas of the world when tragedy strikes, yet slow moving when it comes to helping out our own neighbors or those in need so I felt compelled to see if there was anyone in my area who could use some help.
“If anyone knows someone in the Long Island / NYC Metro area that were really personally affected by Hurricane Irene who could benefit greatly from a Fundraiser featuring a Zumba Class, please contact me.”
Within minutes I received dozens upon dozens of emails from people, some with complaints of $800 in water damage to those who still did not have power and had to resort to their mobile phone to post on Facebook. While they’re all personal tragedies to those who were experiencing them, for me I needed to set the bar a little higher. There are many people here on Long Island who suffered as the result of Hurricane Irene. One of the women I instruct classes for had several thousands of dollars in water damage to her home.
So how do you choose? How do you tell 20 people no and 1 person yes?
I have lived my life with a great role model in my father Al Oakes, a man who in the middle of his own personal tragedy having lost his wife at a young 30 years of age put his own emotional struggles aside and fought hard for many years to adopt 2 children that his deceased wife’s parents would try and take from him. So for me, I needed to set a high criteria for who I would choose to dedicate my time to in order to help out. If I wanted to help someone who had $800 in property damage, I would’ve saved myself 2 months of hard work and effort and just wrote an $800 check back in August.
I wanted to find someone who embodied the core principles that I have instilled in me from my father; that you fight hard for as long as it takes to do for others in spite of what tragedy you may be going through. Jacki Walton’s name was submitted to me by several people. People spoke of how days after her own husband’s death Jacki returned back to work as a Nassau County Police Dispatcher to help out the rest of Long Island in the dead of winter who were being affected by the snowstorm blizzard. Fast forward a few months to August and Long Island was hit with Hurricane Irene. As Jacki Walton saw the house that her recently deceased husband built burn down to a total loss, she again had to put her own personal tragedies aside to return to work and help others who were still dealing with their own issues from the hurricane. This was clearly a woman and a family who embodied what my mission was about, and her family was chosen as the beneficiary of my event. The fact that my family has a long standing history of being Levittown residents only made this event that much more personal for me.
Some might think planning an event would be easy… just get a space, set an admission cost and you’re set… If only it were that easy I’d seriously consider going into fundraiser as a full time career. When looking to make this event happen, I thought it was a no-brainer that local organizations would be quick to help out. Unfortunately this was not the case and I was initially very disheartened by the lack of enthusiasm and support within the Levittown community. My grandmother lived in Levittown for 50 years and was always very generous to help support the local churches or organizations so I was extremely disappointed in some of the Levittown churches who have allowed their space to be used for Bingo night or have hosted outside softball fundraisers; yet turn their back on their own community in need.In the very beginning, I doubted my ability to successfully pull off this event having been met with so much resistance and considered just writing a personal check to the Waltons and save myself the time, aggravation and effort of trying to get others as equally enthusiastic about this cause as I was.
Very few people know this, but having previously survived malignant melanoma (cancer), my doctor found a skin growth beneath the surface on my face. I was scheduled to have my surgery the day before I met with Jacki Walton and even while they were prepping me for surgery; I was on the phone with vendors and volunteers trying to get this thing off the ground. My own doctor came in to my personal staging area and asked me what kind of fundraiser I was working on because the nurses had overheard me on the phone and told her about it.
But the day after my surgery, with bandages on my face I continued to hit the pavement and look for vendors, donors and sponsors to help make this event a success. I really need to personally acknowledge a young woman by the name of Dana Davison. I have known Dana for many years and it was through her connections that I was able to secure a venue in Hicksville to host the event. Dana put me in contact with a man named Joe who ran the Kismet Shriner’s Hall, a hall which is rented out with the intention of helping raise money for their own Shriner’s Children’s Hospital. As I spoke with Joe he spoke of his own personal tragedy having recently lost his own wife only a few months earlier. So here I was, after being rejected by several Levittown Community Organization centers, speaking with a man who was dealing with his own loss, running a hall that helps raise money for their own very worthwhile cause and was kind enough to completely donate, free-of-charge their hall for usage. This gesture was the complete embodiment of what this event was all about.
Once I was able to secure a venue, things just took off from there. We had our venue, a date set and began promoting the event. I am so genuinely grateful to all of the friends within my own personal network who stepped up in volumes to financially donate to this event. We received financial donations from as far as Puerto Rico, Seattle and California. One of the biggest contributors to our event was Dr. Denise Santucci, of Platinum Pulse Fitness of West Babylon. Dr. Santucci has dedicated her life and profession to helping take care of children with developmental disabilities, yet putting her own cause aside she donated generously to this event.
With all of the events I have done, I don’t believe I have heavily promoted any of them a fraction of the amount as I did this one. The event really took on a life of its own. Having successfully avoided the generic mass “Happy Birthday!” wall wishes that are associated with Facebook, I decided to self-declare my birthday “Happy Donate $1 Day!” as my own personal joke. I try to keep my Facebook friends list relatively small, so I figured if every single one of my Facebook friends donated $1 to the Walton event instead of wishing me a happy birthday, at best I’d raise $400. In just the 2 short days in which my “Happy Donate $1 Dollar” banner was up online, this silly jest campaign brought in over $2,000. I was shocked and amazed by the kindness of everyone who took the time to donate even just $1, but when I would see donation amounts of $10, $20, $50, $100 and $150 come in I could not believe it.
As the event drew closer, it began to pick up some traction and the pre-purchase ticket sales had quickly exceeded the 100 body limit that I had set for pre-sales. Knowing the room could hold up to 200 people, I did not want to pre-sell all of the tickets and then have to turn away people at the door who may have just shown up. The outpouring of support and kindness came from all over…. We had huge professional sports organizations like the NFL, New York Islanders and Seattle Seahawks step up and donate professional sports packages for the auction / raffle items. We had Broadway shows like Mary Poppins donate orchestra seats to their successful show. One of the event’s instructors Claudia Arnold had her husband get several donations from the Levittown Loews Movie Theatre shopping center as well as her dermatology office.
All of my hand picked Zumba Instructors who own or ran studios donated over 40 Zumba Classes for people to win. Fitness professionals like Katia Jackson or Ray Rogers who even past the night of the event have committed their time to others who won raffle prizes. People like my girlfriend Rachel who spent hours of her own person time making gift baskets direct for the family or volunteers like Carol Castro who hand made several warm blankets and hats to donate to the raffle.
It makes me so genuinely speechless that before the day of the event we had already raised $5,600. As much as this event was about helping give the Waltons some money to help them with whatever they need to get back on their feet, it was about more than that… it was about giving them a sense of community and to be able to say that 90% of the total money raised came from people who may not have previously heard of or known the Waltons speaks volumes to the character of the people I have surrounded myself with, I am very fortunate.
I haven’t written much about the actual day of the event, because as simply as I can say it, there isn’t much to say. Those who were there, those who were a part of it, those who contributed to it already know the success this was before our doors even opened. I can say that it was the most seamless event I have ever been a part of and that is thanks large in part to the people that I had chosen to help me accomplish this event.
Were there some setbacks or issues? Sure… Thankfully I had strong volunteers like Joann Horn who physically and personally helped me remove over 100 chairs and a dozen round tables from the venue. Walking into a hall seeing a drum set on stage where you plan on having your instructors, that was left by the band the night before was certainly unexpected, but Joann and I got it done.
I really need to thank Mike Teruso of DJ M Audio & Video and his crew John and George for donating his time; sound system and the light package that he set up on stage really made the party a party. Without Mike and his contributions the event would’ve just been an iPod hooked up to some speakers, so we are all very grateful for his willingness to help out.
Having watched several seasons of The Celebrity Apprentice, this event felt like one of the season finale tasks. Until you’ve planned, promoted and executed an event like this there is no way to know what to expect. I am so thankful that I know 2 amazing women who have done events like this time and time again before me who were able to provide me some advice, guidance and overall support.. thanks to Elaine Gil and Eileen Bastien for giving me the mental strength and preparation to stay 100% energetic, enthusiastic and focused on the end goal.
To all of my event day volunteers, thank you all very much for working hard in a chaotic and dynamic environment to have the raffles and auctions go off without so much as a hiccup. Pam, Jen and everyone else, thank you so much for holding down the registration table. To Darlene Smith for handling the 50/50. Linda Fazzio, Carol Castro, Rachel Norton and Tesa Etchieson thank you so much for handling all of the raffles. I was so thankful that the only complaint at all the entire night was from someone who was unhappy that the Jets / Giants ticket package had already been won before she had a chance to buy it. It is never easy trying to accommodate everyone, especially when you have so many amazing items to be won but to be able to say that 99% of the attendees were happy is a success rate I will take every time.
To my group of instructors, I really have to say that if I was the brains of this event, you guys were the heart. The brain does all of the thinking, all of the analyzing, all of the planning and the heart just beats on its own, without thought, without effort… it just beats. I had 100% faith in every single one of you and your amazing ability to just beat that sadly watching you all perform is one of the only things I didn’t get to experience as much as I would’ve liked. When you work with professionals, you don’t have to worry about them. The few moments I did catch genuinely brought a smile to my face, seeing how you all jumped in and backed one another up on stage was simply amazing. The highlights that I was fortunate enough to see were Michelly McCall shaking it up on stage, Luis Navarro bringing energy to a routine unlike any energy I have ever seen before, Katia Jackson for killing a Bhangra circle routine; I think I even caught young Liam in the middle of that rocking out and to Katherine and Ahmed Selim for doing a crazy Salsa Battle.. I was standing in the kitchen and out of the corner of my eye I saw the room split out of nowhere and the way you led those 2 interweaving halves through each other was breathtaking. The moment that really made me so proud of all of you and glad you were all there to share in this was when I saw Ahmed leading his Bachata at the end and pretty much all of you were up there backing him up, having fun… with the black backdrop, the DJ’s light system and the in sync movements, it felt like the kind of professionalism we all witnessed at convention.
I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome and turnout from this event as we had over 175 people in attendance all to show support in one form or another. For me, I did find it comical that people thought or assumed I was nervous or stressed during the event and I was actually very relaxed because I had 100% faith and trust in my team and the people I had as my supporting cast. There were a million moving pieces to pulling off an event like this successfully and there is a calming and soothing effect that setting a goal with time marks and tasks and seeing them all come together can have.
I’d like to believe that when all was said and done and at the end of the night Jacki Walton and her family, if nothing else had a better birthday celebration then they did the last time around. With all of the excitement and enthusiasm surrounding this event it was very hard for me to keep secret from Jacki, her family and others in attendance the surprise of presenting her with a large candle-lit birthday cake. I wanted to do something extra-special at the conclusion of this event and would’ve been happy with a small cake, but thanks to Dortoni’s of Levittown for their kindness in not only providing us with a beautiful large cake, but also several gift certificates and 4 large trays of pastries and cookies.
The most poignant moment in the event that summed up what this event was all about came towards the end when the 50/50 winner was announced. Dr. Alec Hochstein who had already made a sizeable cash donation to the family happened to win the 50/50 and without a second thought immediately gave the money back to the event. Whereas I’m sure to most this would seem like the “right” thing to do, for those of you unfamiliar with the back story, Dr. Hochstein’s young wife Beth has been diagnosed with early on-set Parkinson’s and only 2 days after the Walton Family Event they had planned a Team Fox Parkinson’s Fundraiser. So all the while dealing with their own personal struggles, Alec opted to put his own efforts aside to help out someone in need.
The Walton Family of Levittown is who this event was for and I am so thankful and grateful to everyone who came together to give them the support, love and kindness they are so deserving of.
With this event behind me, I’d like to believe this event was not just about the Walton Family, but rather a larger sense of humanity that speaks to each and every one of us. Every single one of us on this planet has issues and struggles that we must deal with on a daily basis and if ever you find yourself in a situation where you can help someone who might need it a little bit more than you do, whether it be publicly or privately, I encourage you to find your own inner Jacki Walton.
-”I choose not to believe in causes, but rather the people that make them happen”