One of my very favorite annual local sports events was held last week. No goals are scored, no blocks are thrown, no balls are dunked, no tees are pushed into the ground. And the only pitch is for money for a wonderful cause.
You see, 14 years ago I was the master of ceremonies and auctioneer's assistant for the very first Make-a-Wish Foundation Celebrity Sports Auction. Bill Walton was the guest speaker. Neither of us was the star of the show. That person's name was Christina Valdez, a 12-year-old darling with leukemia who offered the prayer, broke into tears midway through, and got a little help from yours truly until we reached the "amen."
When my wife and I took our seats at the SeaGate Centre last Thursday for the 14th edition of the event, the young woman, an absolute knockout, sitting across the table from us with her husband was Christina Valdez Williams. She's 26 years old now, cancer free, a nurse in training, and mother of a 1-year-old son.
As the live auction proceeded during dinner, the cutest little blonde you'll ever see was among the kids who delivered roses to each winning bidder. Her name is Mazie Kruczkowski and she's a fourth-grader at Holland Elementary School, where her teacher last year was that nice Mrs. Hackenberg. Mazie is one of this year's Make-a-Wish poster kids and she smiled shyly when she was introduced to Christina, the first poster child.
Mazie's parents, Tony and Stacie Kruczkowski, teach their kids that it's not nice to hate anything. But a few days ago, Mazie told Stacie, "I hate cystic fibrosis, mom," and Stacie told her it was OK. That she could hate it with a passion. We'll tell you more about it later.
Christina Valdez's family doctor was a guy named Dave Mallory. She clearly remembers the night she was laying in bed, heard the phone ring, and listened to one side of a conversation between her parents and Mallory as he delivered the test results and the diagnosis. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia is a cancer of the white blood cells. It is, to say the least, life-threatening. She was 10 years old. Mallory was as shaken as were Christina's parents. This was the doctor's first really, really sick child-patient.
"I'd been a normal kid," Christina said. "I woke up one morning and couldn't stand. Dr. Mallory called real late one night because he'd kept the people at the lab late to check and re-check the results. I remember that call as clear as day. It was like, 'OK, are all my hopes and dreams gone?' I didn't know what was going to happen. I went to cancer camps and every year there were fewer and fewer kids I knew still around. I mean, I went to bed every night thinking maybe I wouldn't wake up."
The Make-a-Wish Foundation exists for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families. Christina wished for a Disney World trip, and the organization came through for her, her mom and dad and siblings.
"For one week, the focus was off leukemia and only on enjoying each other," Christina recalled. "I love Make-a-Wish."
She visited Mallory's office shortly after returning from Florida and, for the first time since her diagnosis, the doctor saw his patient smile. Coincidentally, as things work, a former Bowsher High classmate approached Mallory a few days later and asked if he'd be interested in joining the Make-a-Wish board of trustees. He remembered Christina's smile and made a decision that has become his passion in life.
The Celebrity Sports Auction, past to present, is Mallory's baby. Back in the early 1990s, the local chapter of the Make-a-Wish, about 10 years into its existence at that time, struggled to fund 15 or 20 wishes a year. Other board members, afraid the organization would lose what little money it had, fought Mallory's idea of an elaborate dinner-auction with a big-ticket speaker. He spent a year collecting sports memorabilia items, gathering donations, filling his basement with everything from signed art to golf bags to panels of NASCAR wrecks, all the while not knowing what to expect.
"I hoped that at the very least we'd break even and get our name and our mission in front of the community," Mallory said. "I figured that would be worth the effort."
Maybe 200 people, half of them other doctors and friends of Mallory's, showed up that first night in a cramped hall for a dinner and to hear Walton speak. Folks opened their wallets and the foundation made $40,000, its biggest fund-raiser ever.
In years since, speakers have included Walter Payton, Gordie Howe, Brooks Robinson, Gale Sayers, Dan Jansen, Kirk Gibson and Rocky Bleier. Many have donated items of their own. All have signed autographs until their wrists were numb. Last week, Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George did the honors while a sellout crowd of 900, along with hundreds of auction items, filled the main hall at the SeaGate Centre. When the Make-a-Wish folks add up the proceeds from silent and live auctions, they'll be knocking on the door of $2 million raised over the 14 years of the event. The foundation now serves 27 counties of northwest Ohio and recently granted its 1,000th wish. One of the most recent was Mazie Kruczkowski's. She wanted to go to her grandma's favorite place, Hawaii.
Mazie has to be at school by 9 a.m., so her day begins at 6. She has no natural enzymes to aid digestion and can't take medication (six pills every time she swallows a food item) while she sleeps, so the first 30 minutes in the bathroom ain't pleasant. She does breathing treatments and dons a vest that inflates and nearly crushes her to force all the crud out of her lungs. She had four surgeries on her sinuses during her second-grade year and to avoid any more she uses a syringe - she does it, not her mom or dad - to inject saline solution into both nostrils and then blows her nose until there's no breath left. Mazie is, by necessity, an old soul in a 9-year-old body. We won't begin to count the pills she takes each day. Yes, darlin', it's OK to hate cystic fibrosis.
She has taught her parents about bravery, they say. She knows what she is dealing with, she never gets down, never complains, never stops smiling. And life never stops throwing stones.
Mazie picked Hawaii as her wish before her grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. Still, they made the trip together, courtesy of Make-a-Wish. Grandma died three weeks after their return, six months to the day doctors gave her six months to live. Sometimes, God takes things too literally.
"They set out to give us a wish and, instead, they gave Mazie and all of us an irreplaceable, life-changing experience," Stacie Kruczkowski said.
Mazie already knew that life isn't fair. If it was little kids wouldn't get sick. Fortunately, they have people like Dave Mallory and so many others with Make-a-Wish to point a ray of sunshine through all those clouds. The best wish, of course, is never the last wish.
Last week, 14 years after little Christina Valdez cried her way through the prayer, the blessing was offered by the Very Reverend Michael Billian. Later, he was introduced to Christina and I told her that the event had become so big through the years that she'd been replaced by the man who sits at the right hand of the bishop.
The two hugged and Father Billian quietly told her, "You know the power of a wish."
Can I hear an amen?