SOMERSET, NJ – With rare exception, epidemics aren't usually things to be encouraged.
Generally speaking, the word conjures up mental images of infectious disease but BELFOR Holdings, Inc. CEO Sheldon Yellen has a more hopeful context in mind.
Yellen – being honored with the Hugs For Brady Foundation's Pediatric Cancer Humanitarian of the Year Award – expressed a desire to “start an epidemic of being nice,” in prepared remarks read on his behalf during the organization's sixth annual Winter Gala Saturday night at The Palace at Somerset Park.
“We need to be nice to each other and we need to share that more often with more people,” he said.
Punctuated by smiles and laughter, the roughly 400 people in attendance embraced each other with “a hug for Brady” at Yellen's urging, as a testament to “the power of being nice."
Hugs For Brady is a local foundation set up by Mike and Sherrie Wells after dealing with cancer in their son, Brady who died in 2010 from a rare form of leukemia at just 23 months old.
In the last four years, the foundation has raised more than $1 million to fight childhood cancers.
In a night that swung between emotional extremes, Emcees Bert Baron of 1450 WCTC talk radio and pediatric cancer survivor Lilly Daneman kept the program going and the energy high, with a little help from a live band that kept the crowd moving out on the dance floor.
Following a cocktail hour and the opening of a silent auction that ran all night, Brady's mom and organization Founder Sherrie Wells spoke of the need to continue the foundation's work.
“Childhood cancer does not discriminate,” she said, visibly moved. “Boys, girls, children of all ages, races, religions and nationalities. Childhood cancer does not discriminate.”
During Brady's 10 months of treatment, Wells said that she felt like she was not just an oncology mom to her own son but to all kids battling cancer.
“All the children, no matter what type of cancer they have, are extremely special and I could not help but fall in love with each and every one of them,” she said. “Determined to change the world, a childhood cancer or one fundraiser at a time, Hugs for Brady Foundation was born.”
The emotion was palpable during the video segments of the program, in which pediatric cancer patients sang a song together and images of Brady filled the screen.
Women dabbed at the corners of their eyes with quickly dug-out tissues and more than a few throats were cleared as people composed themselves.
Seizing the night and the microphone, Robert Milligan, Jr. solicited pledges from around the room in various dollar amounts, ranging from $10,000 to $100, to help fund research and provide resources to hospitals and cancer institutions.
Guests were then invited outside on the terrace to watch a dazzling fireworks display, with men surrendering their jackets to short sleeved and bare shouldered women.
Patty DeGeorge, 63, of Barnegat in Ocean County, said that she learned about the gala from her daughter and that she and her husband traveled the distance because of shared personal experience.
“Both my husband and I work with kids in education and know kids who have had cancer and we really support the cause,” she said. “They (the fireworks) were truly beautiful and all I could think of was that little guy Brady and I thought he's probably watching them from up high.”
Receiving the Ellen Gambatese Pediatric Cancer Volunteer of the Year Award were Hugs For Brady 5K and Family Fun Run race co-directors David Brockman, Jodi Brywka and Thomas Morris.
As the South Brunswick Director of Parks and Recreation, and having known the late Ellen Gambatese, Morris said he felt the honor was twofold.
“Certainly it was such a thrill to be honored in memory of her and, on the other side of the coin, for the Hugs For Brady Foundation,” he said. “It really meant a lot for me and again, you don't do it for the recognition, but certainly, when you do get recognized, and especially for these two things – for Ellen and for Hugs For Brady – there's nothing better than that.”
Accepting the Randy Siegel M.D. Pediatric Cancer Medical Humanitarian of the Year award for University Radiology was board certified nuclear medicine radiologist Dr. Murray D. Becker.
South Brunswick Mayor Frank Gambatese said that he hoped Wells achieved her fund-raising goals to help pediatric cancer patients.
“Sherrie and Michael live right behind me so we watched that little baby grow and it was kind of heartbreaking when this happened to him,” he said. “We're really pleased that Sherrie has done such a fantastic job of making people aware of this really sad disease that affects little kids.”
According to Wells, this year's Winter Gala raised more than $132,000 for the foundation.
Foundation sponsors for this year include The Palace at Somerset Park, Midwood Distributors, ProCure Proton Therapy, Wiss, Wawa, Goddard of North Brunswick and Jersey Physical Therapy.
This year's friends of the foundation include state Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman, R-16, Jeff and Linda Forbes, St. Augustine of Canterbury Roman Catholic Church, On the Border Mexican Grill and Cantina, Adcorp Media Group, Hermann Services Inc., Hoffmann and Sons Plumbing and Valerie McRae, M.D.
The Palace at Somerset Park is located at 333 Davidson Avenue.
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