Community routinely raises big money to help its own
by Marc and Julie Anderson
NEMAHA COUNTY — Paying it forward. Being a family. Supporting each other. Giving and receiving.
These are all lessons the Ruegge, McCarthy and Hammes families say they’ve learned firsthand as the beneficiaries of an annual fundraiser held in February in Seneca (pop. 1,991), which routinely generates more than $80,000 and has generated more than $1 million since its founding.
This year’s fundraiser will be held Feb. 21-22 at Nemaha Central High School in Seneca. The two-day event will feature — among other events — a basketball tournament, a volleyball tournament, an auction, a concert by Catholic recording artist Wade Talley, and a free-throw-shooting exhibition by Bob Fisher, holder of several world records. All proceeds will benefit three children from the area or with family ties to the area, including Max Hammes, Graham Fleury Blakeley and Karsyn Aylward.
At just five months old, Max Hammes, son of David and Tarese Hammes, members of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Seneca, has spent all but six days of his life in the hospital. Born with Down syndrome and atrial ventricular septal defect, Max is currently at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, and is facing his second major heart surgery on Feb. 17.
At 22 months old, Blakeley, born at 27 weeks gestation, has an abdominal wall birth defect called omphalocele, meaning his muscles did not close properly in utero, leading to his internal organs developing outside his body. On a ventilator his entire life, he’s already undergone surgeries in both eyes as well as a tracheostomy. Eventually, he will need additional surgeries to push the organs back in place, giving him a normal, flat belly.
Just before Christmas, 14-year-old Karsyn Aylward (whose grandparents live in Seneca) of Shawnee was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoblastic T-cell lymphoma. Chemotherapy was started immediately and will continue for two years.
Having grown up in the area, Tarese Hammes said she had attended or helped with the fundraiser in the past, never dreaming she would one day be in need herself. But she recognized the importance of saying yes to being a beneficiary.
“Human beings have a need to give,” she said. “But in order for someone to give, someone has to be willing to receive.”
Now in its 32nd year, the benefit had humble beginnings.
In 1983, Dan Broxterman and his wife Lori learned of a neighbor facing financial difficulty due to a medical issue. The pair decided they wanted to help.
“When I was growing up, my dad always told me stories of how when people’s houses were destroyed by fire, the whole town would show up and help rebuild,” Broxterman said, adding, “We’ve gotten away from that.”
An avid basketball fan, Broxterman and his wife organized a tournament consisting of a handful of teams. The couple charged 25 cents for admission and raised more than $500.
“People told me it wouldn’t work,” he said. “I told them, ‘Yes, it will.’”
For the next seven years, the Broxtermans organized similar tournaments. By 1990, the benefit included at least a dozen basketball teams and generated at least $6,000 in proceeds. That’s when the Baileyville Benefit, as it is known, truly took shape.
Realizing they needed help, the Broxtermans created a board of directors to oversee the benefit and ensure financial transparency. The 10-member board consists of five couples, all from the area, who discern the community’s needs, oversee the event and give hundreds of hours in time soliciting donations and organizing volunteers. None of the volunteers has any formal training or experience in development or fundraising.
But one of this year’s committee chairs, Diane Schmitz, said there’s really no secret as to the key reason for the event’s success: the personal touch. Instead of making cold calls or sending form letters, at least 95 percent of the donations are sought through personal visits.
“That personal touch . . . it means more,” Schmitz said, adding that business owners want to hear the personal stories of the recipients.
“I get calls from businesses if I forget to come and talk about their donation with them,” Broxterman said.
Although the event is a fundraiser, everyone involved is quick to say it’s ultimately about something greater.
“It’s not about the money,” Broxterman said. “It’s about being a family and helping one another.”
And helped families it has. Take for example the family of Tyler Hammes.
In 1995, Tyler’s parents Brad and Glenda, members of Sacred Heart Parish in Baileyville, were asked if they would consider being beneficiaries.
During a balloon angioplasty when Tyler was four months old, one of his arteries burst. He suffered a traumatic brain injury. With a life expectancy of four years (he is now 22), he would be confined to a wheelchair and be dependent on a feeding tube. The cost of medical appointments, therapy and wheelchairs put a strain on the family budget, especially because Glenda had to give up her job since no babysitter was willing to watch him. Yet, the community rallied around them.
“It’s one thing to know people are praying for you and cheering you on,” Glenda said. “But when you see all of those people are at the benefit and you know they are there for you and your family, it’s overwhelming.”
“The key here is the participation,” said Brad. “In some other city, you might have a benefit or a fundraiser and get five percent participation. Up here, you get 99 percent participation probably. It’s unbelievable.”
The participation floored Bryan and Betty Ruegge, too, especially when the community banded together in 2009 to help after their son Elijah was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
“We had never even been to the benefit before,” said Betty. Members of St. Mary Church in St. Benedict, the couple had moved to the area and had no family ties to anyone.
“We were just blown away. Here we are, we’re not related to anyone, and everybody just took us in,” she said. “It’s amazing how generous everyone is.”
The couple used the money to pay medical bills, but also to pay unforeseen expenses such as gas, food and lodging as they traveled back and forth to Omaha, Nebraska. With their bills covered, the couple said they were free to focus on Elijah and his needs.
Now, with Elijah in remission for nearly three years, Betty said the event is something their family hasn’t missed since that first year when they benefited from it. They always contribute, too, whether it’s working at one of the events or donating a pie.
Another family that regularly helps is that of Madelyn McCarthy.
At 2 years old, Madelyn has never spoken one word or taken one step. She has a neurological disorder known as polymicrogria and also suffers from cerebral palsy and seizures.
Given her special needs, the McCarthys, parishioners at St. Bernard Parish in Wamego, survive on just one income, that of Madelyn’s father Joe. Madelyn’s mother Megan quit her job in order to care for her. Given the medical bills and the emotional strain on the family (which includes two other children), the benefit came at the right time last year.
“We didn’t feel deserving,” said Megan, who grew up in the area. “We knew we needed the money and could use it, but we didn’t realize how much we needed the emotional support.”
Megan also said she was amazed at the generosity of so many people, many of whom she didn’t know at all.
“Nobody wants anything back,” Broxterman said. “It’s easy to give. It’s our way of saying thank you to God for all the blessings he’s given us.”
Like the other families, Megan said that she would like to be able to thank each and every person who gave of their time, talent or treasure to help her family. “It’s very humbling. Even if I could pay each and every single person back, they don’t want it.”
No, Broxterman said, they are just encouraged to pay it forward somehow, some way.