Co-founders of Mary’s Place by the Sea, Michele Gannon and Maria McKeon, were absolutely on target when they set out to design a benefit event to raise funds for a permanent location for their Ocean Grove respite facility supporting women with cancer. Recently, approximately 1,000 Mary’s Place supporters turned out at the venerable Asbury Park Convention Center for what may well have been the Jersey Shore fund raiser of the season.
So many individual and corporate efforts went into producing this event that it’s difficult to compile a list of volunteers- and the event was wonderfully elaborate because of the amazingly successful collaboration. The evening featured a lavish cocktail “hour” (it was, actually, more like several hours) while attendees congregated in the mall area outside of the Convention Center hall. Vendor sponsors were in place, representing goods and services ranging from a new alternative, green energy source (Viridian, who will give Mary’s Place $20 a month for every new account opened and naming them as a beneficiary) to Eileen Kornbluh Pottery, a company which featured commemorative bud vases with the words “Raise the Roof” printed on them. Related organizations were there to show support, too, including “Just Us Girls,” also there to talk up their upcoming annual 5K event in conjunction with the Manasquan Elks club on Saturday, October 23th, at the Sea Girt Army Camp.
Partying to both celebrate and support this special place seemed somehow especially “right.” The food provision was definitely a labor of love. Under the direction of Nine Degrees North catering, owned by Gannon's brothers who, I was told- flew in from California and Arizona for the event, one even driving in his kitchen from the Mid-West, no less- the food team was comprised of several area catering companies who pooled their time and talents to serve guests at the event. And serve they did- and with smiles galore- despite the high degree of humidity, plying attendees with delectables that included cervice and both beef and chicken kabobs. Food for dinner:included squash blossom tortellini, penne pasta with basil and cream sauce, and a selection of pizzas. Lines were long, but people were well fed since food continued to flow throughout most of the show. In fact, I can’t remember encountering a more efficient as well as inviting and personable food service team who, although just meeting and working together for the first time for this event, seemed to operate like a well-oiled machine. But as one of the workers at the event, Jeanine Bongiovanni, told me, in between scampering back and forth to help others keep the buffet filled, “It’s because it’s all work for a great cause…”
Most attendees had stories to share about loved ones touched by cancer, how they’d come to know a really brave client at Mary’s Place, or even about their own cancer journeys. One of the caterers, "the" Patty of Kahuna Patty, is battling a tumor in her leg. Visible because she was wearing shorts to better do her service of running food back and forth that very hot evening, it was apparent this was no simple matter of something that might easily just “go away.” Patty talked about trying to find doctors that would help her avoid amputation. She told me all of this while her eyes shone with joy for having the opportunity to be of service to an organization that helps other women best fight the cancer battle.
Tom Price and his wife Terri were at the event attending in memory of Terri’s mother who passed away of stomach cancer in December. Patty (Mullen) and Tom Gilmour were there celebrating one year of her being clear of breast cancer. Mary’s Place by the Sea client, Jennifer Jennings, was there, too, simply happy to be feeling good enough to be out and about for the evening.
Jennings met Michele Gannon at a Mary’s Place fund raiser last year. She was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 26 and has been fighting the disease for a total of eight years, specifically Stage Four breast cancer for six years. Somehow, and a testament to her “can do” attitude, she’s been teaching elementary school on and off during that time. Jennings’ youth is definitely an asset, and her acquaintance with the facility is a very special story.
“I told all of my friends about Mary’s Place,” Jennings told me at the fund raiser, “but I didn’t think I really needed it.” I must editorialize at this point- I can’t help myself. Jennings is a beautiful young woman who has a stunningly attractive appearance despite the fact that she must wear a scarf on her head to cover her baldness. This lovely young person is incredibly “plucky” and shares a vibrant spirit. She sat at table in the Convention Center hall radiating joy simply because of the fact that she was feeling well enough to come out to the event that night. Here was a woman who, as best all can tell, had actually gotten cancer from the radiation treatments she’d received to fight Hodgkin’s disease at age eleven. She’d been fighting health struggles most all of this time, and yet she was evangelizing to others about what Mary’s Place offered and had not availed herself of the services there. She didn’t think her struggle yet warranted it…
“But then I had to have another brain surgery,” she shared with me. No everyday thing, in anyone’s opinion, and that led her to go to Mary’s Place. She’d been visiting for the past several weeks. Good thing. Jennings begins her very first chemo shortly- a big and scary step for anyone. This time she will be checking into the facility for a short period of time- vs. doing day visits- in order to receive the full benefit of the kinds of assistance offered there.
“They’ve supported me in so many ways at Mary’s Place,” Jennings said. “The women (volunteering and on staff) there are very nurturing, and they’ve given me things like juices and information about nutritional support.” There will be other women undergoing similar life events, too, when Jennings “checks in,” and she is looking forward to the kind of support she can only get from other patients and survivors.
“There’s so much to do there,” she said. “You have a quiet room, if you want that, or you can get involved in activities, like taking a journaling class. You can talk (to other women) when you want- or not, if that’s what you want.” It sounds like support of an invaluable kind. And Jennings’ overall feelings about what she’s about to face?
“It’s tough, you know?” she said. “You’re young and you want to be doing a million other things. But, it is what it is,” she added, ever buoyant and hopeful. “I’m not gonna give up.”
We’re not gonna give up on you, either, Jen. Our prayers and thoughts are most definitely with you at this time, and we’ll be checking back in on you.
Guests moved from exterior of the famous theater to the cooler confines of the interior, set for the event with cocktail tables and a central bar. The show began with emcee comedian Rob Magnotti cracking jokes and generally warming up the crowd. Michele Gannon followed with her heart-felt remarks to the crowd about how she started Mary’s Place, where they’ve come since last year (hard to believe it’s only been one year that the facility has been in operation and they’ve already served well over 100 clients!), and where they hope to go. As I mentioned in my first piece about this event, Mary’s Place would like to not only have a permanent place for their Ocean Grove location (they currently rent from a local B&B) but they’d like to have a place like this in every major city in America by the year 2010. From what I saw at this event, I do believe that, with the energy, passion and commitment of this crew, this is a possibility.
Michele Gannon introduced Steve Reilly and the One Way Ticket band who performed the song written in honor of Mary’s Place, “Raise the Roof.” The house was on its feet from then onward. I have to say that being at a concert at the Asbury Convention Center was really a “blast from the past for me.” I am a Jersey Girl, after all, and I had a fond flashback of sitting in the very same stadium seats years ago watching Golding Earring and King Crimson play the same house. No contact high on this occasion, however. Nice to see that we are not only getting older, but also wiser…
Emcee Ron Magnotti filled in with jokes about chiropractic services- and gave an unofficial plug to his long-time chiropractor whilst band crews changed out the groups’ set-ups. Raffle tickets were a big part of the event, and the winning tickets were pulled in between acts- definitely a crowd pleaser.
The Jody Joseph Band offered a sprited rendition of a Fleetwood Mac number, “Break the Chain.” They followed this with a selection from Led Zeppelin. Their version of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was well-received, too, and also their Janis Joplin’s medley. Their ability to capture the “feel” for each of the groups was uncanny. Based upon the fact that I didn’t see many twenty or thirty-year olds at this event, I think everyone had a really fine stroll -down memory lane. Joseph bridged her set with a beautiful ballad in honor of her sister who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Announcement of the 50/50 winning number preceded the performance by Gary US Bonds. So did Magnotti’s impersonation of Ray Romano, along with his idea of what Mick Jagger would sound- and look- like if he was a participant on Dancing with the Stars. His mean impersonation of Michael Jackson dancing was a crowd pleaser, too. .
Gary US Bonds thrilled the audience with many numbers, including “Rendezvous,” joking that if was one “Bruce Springsteen taught me.” At this point, nearly everyone in the place was clustered near the stage, totally engaged in the group’s musical offerings, and stayed there until the very end of the show to thoroughly enjoy the classic “This Little Girl is Mine.”
Putting together successful events like this takes a lot of support from friends and others, as they say. Michele Gannon’s neighbor, Alicia Force, and her friend, Mary Ramos from New Jersey by way of Los Angeles were there to lend support.
“I see Michele coming and going every day with family, work and other responsibilities,” Force told me. “I don’t know how she does it all! And this event is just amazing.”
Indeed, it takes a “village” to launch and maintain a successful service organization such as Mary’s Place by the Sea. Fortunately, with such dedicated volunteers on board already mentioned- and including others like John Herr, the editor of Fitness Magazine (who photographed the action throughout the entire evening…) I can already tell that this is a village that will not allow this mission to fail. Bless them, one and all!
For more information about Mary’s Place by the Sea, please phone 732-775-1919 or email at [email protected]
For more information about caterers “Nine Degrees North,” please visit their web site at www.ninedegreesnorth.com
For more information on the upcoming “Just Us Girls” 5k please contact Kathy at 732/449-3626 or C.C. 732/223-3519
Text and photos ©2010 M. D. Caprario
M. D. Caprario is an author, editor and journalist working in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York covering for the media all good things in the book, film and entertainment worlds- and other people and things striving to make our World a better place. Reach her at [email protected].