The stars recently turned out to support the Viscardi Center’s 50th anniversary Sports Celebrity Night and the 2016 class of the center’s school for disabled children shared the spotlight with them to help raise a record $4.4 million.
That eclipsed the goal of $1.8 million Viscardi had set as a goal for the event.
New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning was honored as sportsman of the year and former New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath came back to Viscardi for the annual event a second straight year to sign autographs and pose for pictures with the Viscardi students.
“It’s so powerful,” Namath said. “You thank God that there are people here putting together a team effort to help folks grow and get ready for the world, overcoming stronger disabilities than I can ever imagine. It’s a joy to be here.”
Local sports teams were well represented, including former players for the New York Mets and Jets who’ve been a part of the center’s biggest annual fund-raising event for years. Those attending make contributions to Viscardi to get athletes’ autographs and participate in silent bidding on sports memorabilia.
“When you see the desire that the children here have, it’s inspiring,” said former Jets receiver Wesley Walker, who said his own blindness in one eye since birth taught him “to persevere and never give up.”
Walker taught special education during a 25-year teaching career after his football career ended.
“Thank God for our blessings. Where we can give blessings, we do what we can,” Walker said.
“I haven’t been coming here for 50 years, but I’ve been coming here for a long time,” said former Met Mookie Wilson. “Just being a part of this is great because of the kids.
Like Wilson, Ed Kranepool and Bud Harrelson have been supporting the annual Viscardi event since their playing days with the Mets.
“It’s a great cause. When you see the children and the good the Viscardi Center does, how can you not support it?” Kranepool said.
Viscardi senior Mariah Sepulveda, a standout on the Viscardi basketball team who will attend Hunter College on a full scholarship this fall, extolled the Viscardi “fans” in a skit with Mookie Wilson and New York Liberty star Kim Hampton.
Hampton led the five students in Viscardi’s senior class in a moving rendition of “God Bless America” at the outset of the sports night dinner for the more than 800 people in attendance.
But Viscardi valedictorian Christopher Alvarez provided the night’s most moving moment as he recounted his life coping with a rare skeletal disease that stunted his growth and keeps him wheelchair-bound. Now 18 years old, he recalled that doctors gave him little chance to live when he was born.
“Life is a short gift. Anything is possible,” he told a rapt audience. “We should never give up because if we work hard enough, there’s no limit to what we can do.”
Encouraging those present to participate in bidding on things during the dinner, Alvarez said, “Together we can do it.”
Viscardi President and CEO John Kemp said it was an “extreme honor” to preside over the center’s 50th sports night.
“We’re proud of the work we do in the center and proud of our students and what they accomplish,” Kemp said.