BY MARY WALRATH
Celebrity athletes will return to Viscardi Center on May 16 for the 53rd annual Celebrity Sports Night. This year’s fundraiser features Yankees infielder Gleyber Torres, paratriathlete Sarah Reinertsen, former state Sen. Jack Martins and roughly 30 other athletes and corporate heavyweights.
The cocktail and dinner event raises 5 percent of Viscardi Center’s yearly budget, something Kim Brussell, vice president of public affairs and marketing, says is vital to maintaining its operations.
“It really raises critical funds for us to be able to do things we don’t have any other funding stream for,” said Brussell. “So it’s very important to have this to purchase the technologies that are so critical in the delivery of our education and employment programs every day and some of just our operational needs like a new roof, new air conditioning, things like that.”
The educational and employment services the Viscardi Center offers serve 2,000 people a year from all five boroughs of the city, and Westchester, Nassau and Suffix counties.
The center’s K-12 school serves medically fragile and severely disabled children with a graduation and college acceptance rate of 86 percent. The center provides after-school athletic programs, transportation, and modern technologies and curriculums designed to give students an accessible but rigorous academic experience.
The other side of the center offers programs to disabled adolescents and adults and school districts looking for transitioning planning services, prevocational work, testing and job placement. The center places roughly 120 people a year in competitive, integrated employment and provides support and advocacy beyond a participant’s tenure at the center.
The Celebrity Sports Night is the night each year, according to CEO John Kemp, that the community gets to celebrate that.
“We get to demonstrate the incredible intelligence and smarts and skills of our students who are at the school here and our program, as well as those who are the adolescent and adult side of our organization,” said Kemp. “When they get to see stars like a paralympian who might look a lot like them, they get very excited. They’re meeting a lot of other athletes … and business people from the corporate world where they’ll hopefully be working.”
The mingling allows guests not only the chance to collect autographs and bid on auction items, but also to sample foods the on-campus culinary students prepare, spend time in the facility, and interact with the program participants at length.
“The business people, for example, are pretty humbled by it all because they don’t hang out, necessarily, with a lot of disabled individuals, so they start visiting with them and they realize ‘these kids are very much like my kids, or any other students,’ and that’s kind of how we break down the barriers,” said Kemp.
Though a lot has changed in the last 50 years, the goal of putting “good people” out into the world has remained the same. Some athletes have been participating in the event for over 20 years, and Kemp says that each one who takes part in the event today is deeply invested in the cause.
“People with disabilities suffer from low expectations,” said Kemp. “But there is nothing [they] cannot accomplish in this life. And the hope is that message gets transferred to all people with disabilities.”
The Viscardi Center Celebrity Sports Night is at 5:30 p.m. in the Viscardi Center, 201 I.U. Willets Road in Albertson. Sponsorship and tickets are available on the center’s website at viscardicenter.org/sportsnight/.