Viscardi fundraiser draws star power

Viscardi fundraiser draws star power

A veritable Who’s Who of New York sports celebrities came out for the Viscardi Center 47th Annual Celebrity Sports Night last Thursday night to support the center’s mission to educated disabled children and give vocational training to adults.

Legendary New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath and Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theisman were among the busiest sports celebrities signing autographs for some of the 600 people who attended the reception and dinner at the center’s Albertson facilities. 

Jets receiver Wesley Walker, representing a more recent era, was present. Popular former New York Mets outfielder Mookie Wilson and shortstop “Bud” Harrelson were also there to remind fans of the team’s glory days and the cause they were there to support.

Wilson, a member of the 1986 World Series champion Mets, said he’s been involved with the Viscardi organization since his Shea Stadium playing days.

“I’ve been a supporter of this organization for many, many years. They do a great job,” said Wilson, who was a member of the 1986 World Series champion Mets. “Just being asked to participate is a privilege. It’s a good feeling to be part of such a great event.”

Harrelson said he’s been involved in the event, including performing with some of the Viscardi students at the dinner, for the past six years.

“It’s a wonderful cause,” said Harrelson, who said he had spent several hours rehearsing with the students that day. “These kids are unbelievable.”

Namath, smiling broadly, said he was there “to support the Viscardi team.”

Walker, who has been blind in one eye since birth, said he’s been involved with the Viscardi organization since 1977.

“I’m involved because education was so important to me. These adults and these kids are inspiring to me,” Walker said. “God has blessed me. God is good.”

The event raised $1.1 million this year, according to Viscardi Center spokeswoman Kim Brussell, who said additional donations are still coming in. The money was raised through sponsorships, tables, the silent and live auction, and an appeal from the stage.

John Kemp, president and CEO of the Viscardi Center, delivered the main remarks at the dinner on Thursday night.

“We must open our mind and be willing to learn that it’s really quite simple to deal with people with disabilities,” Kem said. “Throw away your stereotypes and assumption; replace fear with openness. Treat us with courtesy and respect. Hire and promote us based on our ability and merit, and even our character. Treat us as you would any other human being.”

Theisman, a 12-year NFL veteran, received the Roy Campanella Award given in honor of the late Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Fame catcher who was a three-time National League Most Valuable Player before his career ended abruptly when he was paralyzed in an auto accident in 1958. Campanella continued to work as a Dodgers coach until his death in 1993. Theisman is a member of the Sports Advisory Board of St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.

‘I’m overwhelmed, flattered and honored deeply by this award this evening,” Theisman said in receiving the award. “Tonight has been an eye opener for me. It has been an opportunity to take a look at my life and the lives of so many of the men and women you have seen stand on this stage before you and think about where you are and what you’ve done and the trials and tribulations that the young men and young women in this school continue to fight every day every day. These young men and young women in this center, they are the true heroes. Getting up every day is a challenge, but yet they don’t let it deter them.”

He concluded by saying none of the sports awards he’s received were as important to him as the Roy Campanella Award he received from the Viscardi Center.

Another Viscardi Center award winner that night was Patrick Rummerfeld, who has participated in the Hawaii Ironman Race of Champions and in 1999, became the first person with quadriplegia to set the World Land Speed Record in an electric car. 

Paralyzed in a car accident at age 21, he underwent 17 years of intensive rehabilitation to learn to walk again. He is currently director and patient liaison at the International Center for Spinal Chord Injury at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, Md.

During the reception on Thursday night, former world medal pairs skater Tai Babilonia said she was there for the children. 

“The smiles on their faces put everything in perspective,” Babilonia said.

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