Around the Island

Gift of Life gala rocks the Ram’s Head

Like a bright candle, the 19th Annual Gift of Life Celebration drew Islanders out of hibernation on Saturday, March 2, to help this worthy cause. Music, drinks and light fare were served up at the Ram’s Head Inn, where folks caught up with neighbors they hadn’t seen for a while.

Jeanne Merkel, dressed in a sparkling navy blue ensemble, happily took to the dance floor to rock to the Points East band. “It’s a chance to get dressed up and go out in the middle of winter,” she said. “And I love the Ram’s Head.”

That sentiment, along with the desire to support the cause, was evident in the crowd of 100 guests who came out after a heavy snowfall that day.

Founded in 2001 by Cheryl Hannabury and her family while she was battling Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the Island Gift of Life Foundation helps patients and families with many costs not covered by insurance, including lodging for families and support teams.

The Foundation also staged a blood/bone marrow drive in its early days, adding 100 names to the bone marrow donor registry. The hope had been to find a match for Cheryl, but she succumbed to the disease before that could happen.

Today, the Foundation provides financial aid to dozens of East End families each year and continues to fund bone marrow drives, designating $10,000 a year to “Be the Match,” a bone marrow registry.

Cheryl Hannabury is remembered by many for her warm, engaging spirit that never flagged throughout her illness. To this day, her spirit is celebrated in this gathering of the community to support the cause.

Many of those attending Saturday night’s event at the Ram’s Head had been friends of Cheryl, and their ranks have grown with others who’ve embraced the mission, knowing that serious illness touches virtually every family.

Corinne Wilutis was recruited to the foundation’s board several years ago and now serves as its vice-president. A nurse, she felt compelled to help when asked. “I knew Cheryl,” she said. “Her brother and my father were on the police force together. And my father also died of cancer when he was 48.”

Ms. Wilutis’ brother- and sister-in-law were at the event for the first time, along with her husband, John.

Robert and Suzanne Wilutis, who are usually traveling at this time of year, donated prizes for the event and, Suzanne said, “Now I’d like to volunteer for the event committee.”

“To help others in their time of need,” said former board member Brett Surerus, “is the most Shelter Island thing you can do.”

After enjoying a lavish spread of hors d’oeuvres prepared by Chef Tommy Ritzler and his staff, the guests moved into the dining room for the program. Emcee James Eklund spoke of the work they do throughout the year, negotiating with hospitals and insurance companies as well as distributing $40,000 in assistance, including $10,000 to the bone marrow registry.

He thanked the longtime volunteers, board and committee members who’ve made this fundraiser a success, then singled out recent recruits like Ebeth Lones, “our new spark plug,” who enthusiastically worked the reception desk and sold raffles. James and Linda Eklund provide the venue for the event.

A new face took over the live auction this year, Jeremy Samuelson, director of the Mashomack Preserve, who was recruited recently for the event. “It was the easiest ‘Yes’ I’ve said in a very long time,” he told the crowd. “In 2005, I got that horrible news: ‘You have cancer.’ And I’m here today for two reasons. One, I refused to give up. And two,” he said, pointing to his wife, Carissa, “that woman fought like hell. She propped me up.”

Mr. Samuelson cited the support of family, friends and organizations such as Gift of Life as crucial when one is battling disease. He then urged the guests to be generous as he opened the live auction.

Attendees had come prepared to bid on luxury excursions on yachts; visits to elegant mansions; a stay at the Whitehead Lighthouse in Maine that went for $5,000; a vacation at Villastrada, an Italian villa donated by Joann Piccozzi that went for $4,000 and more. Mr. Samuelson whipped the bidders into a friendly, frenzied competition, generating $14,000 for the cause.

Board member Gina Kraus and her sister, Jane Roberts, were active throughout the night, drumming up support for the auctions. Ms. Kraus ran a fund-raising appeal after the live auction specifically to support bone-marrow transplants.

An emotional high point came when Ms. Kraus introduced  Jessica Green, a former student of Ms. Kraus, who had a life-saving bone marrow transplant.

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO There was a standing ovation for Jessica Green, right,
a one-year, cancer-free bone marrow transplant patient, with Gina Kraus.

Ms. Green spoke of her experience after learning that she had two blood diseases. Her brother turned out not to be a suitable donor, but fortunately a match was found.

“How could a total stranger save my life?” she recalled thinking. Now 339 days post-transplant, she spoke eloquently of being “a healthy 27-year-old,” sharing her experience to underscore the importance of the transplants.

Ms. Kraus followed this moving appeal, challenging guests to donate $1,000, $500, $100 or any amount specifically to support bone marrow transplant programs. A total of $11,700 was contributed. The Points East band, who had donated their services, also contributed to the transplant appeal after hearing Ms. Green.

Guests bought $4,300 in tickets for the Chinese auction, which featured huge baskets stuffed with donated prizes from Island businesses as well as sponsors from the north and south forks.

The event was underwritten by $10,000 in sponsorship donations provided by the William Dowling Foundation, Marcello Masonry, Michael Gray, Liz and Lou Bevilacqua, Charles Ihlenfeld, the Caccese family, just to name a few who graciously each gave $500 or more to sponsor the event.

Overall, the gross for the night was $46,000, reflecting hard work, generosity and a caring community.