ELLICOTTVILLE — In a Holiday Valley lodge, against a backdrop of sun-melted ski hills, Victoria Mordaunt stepped in front of a crowd of a few dozen. She stood tall and poised, smiling subtly. Mordaunt, who is 24, started talking about her older sister, Kali Korzelius, who died in 2012.
“She asked me, ‘What makes you the most happy?’ ” recalled Mordaunt, who told her sister, “Music. Singing for people.”
But Mordaunt also confided in her sister that she was afraid. She longed to stand in front of a crowd, let her voice become an instrument, and fill a room with music. But she feared it, too.
“Promise me you will do anything you can to conquer your fear,” Korzelius said to Mordaunt, “and sing for people.”
That conversation, and the brain tumor that stole Korzelius’ life far too early, were the reasons Mordaunt was here today. She was in Ellicottville for the PUNT Fund’s annual Remembrance Weekend, a three-day program for families who lost a child or sibling to cancer. The families had gathered on this Sunday morning for a candlelight vigil. Mordaunt stood in front of a set of tables with photos of those children and sang "The Prayer." As her voice filled the room, other families dabbed away tears, or held hands, or sat solemnly.
In the back of the room, a man sat alone, legs crossed, absorbing it all. He was Brian Moorman, best known as the Buffalo Bills’ former Pro Bowl punter, but more significantly known in this room as the reason all these families were here. Moorman and his wife, Amber, founded the PUNT Foundation in 2004. Their goal was to provide financial and social support for families of children fighting cancer.
What was probably lost on the families that weekend, but very present in Moorman’s mind, was that PUNT was in the middle of a transformation. For its first 14 years, the PUNT Foundation was a standalone 501(c)(3) nonprofit. But last year, Moorman, his Executive Director Gwen Mysiak and their board decided to merge the organization into the larger Children’s Hospital of Buffalo Foundation. That merger, which included the transfer of approximately $100,000 in assets and two employees (Mysiak and program and event coordinator Bridgett Moffett), was completed in April.
What did it mean?
For Moorman, it meant his name would no longer be part of the organization’s moniker. Formerly known as Brian Moorman’s PUNT Foundation, it is now the PUNT Fund.
For PUNT programming, it meant few changes. The organization is still running most of its programs, which include the New Era Locker (giveaways of gas cards, grocery cards, and parking and cafeteria vouchers to families whose children are hospitalized), an Adopt a Family holiday gift giveaway, the Helping Hands financial assistance program, and a Game Day program that provides suite tickets at New Era Field for Buffalo Bills games.
The governance around PUNT’s merger also allow – and require – the organization to continue working with pediatric oncology patients from Hospice Buffalo and Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. For PUNT’s future, the move to the hospital foundation is significant. It gives Mysiak and Moffett more office infrastructure and greater fundraising ability.
“It is a big deal,” said Moorman, whose NFL career ended in 2014. At PUNT’s holiday gift giveaway last December, he said, a family approached him and remarked, “I figured you would stop this when you got done playing.”
“The goal was to make sure that it didn’t,” Moorman said, “because we’ve helped too many families and gotten to know too many families over the years, and have built something that is helping these kids and families throughout the community. To just push the brakes just because I’m not playing football anymore, that’s just not right.”
Longtime Bills offensive lineman Eric Wood also merged his Eric Wood Foundation into the Children’s Hospital foundation a year ago. His foundation, which serves children and families with chronic illnesses, was first run by an out-of-town, for-profit company that specializes in operating foundations for athletes. It is now called the Eric Wood Fund.
“It was important for me to have it switched over to people in town running it because I wanted it to last beyond my playing days,” said Wood, who is retiring this offseason. “At this point that’s what it looks like it can do. It was important for me to have it ran by people from Western New York so they would know the most immediate needs and the most pressing needs of the families.”
PUNT’s situation is slightly different: Mysiak, its leader, is a Western New Yorker. She has run PUNT since 2012 and knows the needs of the market. She’s steadily increased PUNT’s net support and revenues, too, from $84,572 in 2012 to $220,710 in 2016. (The numbers for 2017 are still being finalized but will show more growth.)
But the need to grow more, Mysiak said, was “keeping me up at night.”
The out-of-pocket costs for a family with a child in oncology treatment can run as high as $70,000 per year. And Mysiak knows the emotional cost, too. She left an executive position at WNED broadcasting to take the helm of PUNT after her teenage cousin, Andrew Pawlak, died at age 15. Moorman, through the foundation, had arranged for Andrew and his family to have a final, private swim in a hotel pool just days before the boy’s death. Moorman called Andrew’s mother, too, on the day of his passing. Mysiak was struck by Moorman’s devotion to her family, and felt called to help him grow the foundation.
This move is the next step.
“We are only scraping the surface of the need,” she said. “Our direct financial assistance program is tapped in the most catastrophic of situations: They’re getting evicted at the end of the week. Their child just died and the funeral home needs a (payment). There’s so much more need …
“Now we have this structure from which to operate that hopefully will allow us to grow the funding in a way that we couldn’t have done as a standalone very easily.”
For the Children’s Hospital foundation, this could be an opportunity to partner with wealthy, philanthropy-minded athletes who want to put their money to work. Rather than deal with the complexities and regulations of standalone nonprofits, they follow Moorman and Wood and set up a fund, which is then part of the Children’s Hospital foundation apparatus.
“If they want it to be more efficient and effective, there’s an expert sitting here who can help them figure out how to get it done,” said Allegra Jaros, president of John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital. “Now we’ll have this expert in Gwen and her team that we can utilize as those requests or those relationships build.”
The new name aside, Moorman’s relationship with the PUNT Fund is largely unchanged. He’s still coming to Buffalo from Florida, where he now lives with his wife and young son, and participating in PUNT programs. At first, he said the transition out of football, into a new career as a real estate agent, and the change in the foundation, has been “a little hard.”
“Moving on from that career that is really the only thing I’ve ever known,” he said, “and not only that, we started this in '04, which was my third year (in the NFL).”
But then Moorman reconsidered. He’s seen hard. Hard is what the families he serves have endured. Hard is Victoria Mordaunt following her dying sister’s wishes and confronting her fears of singing.
Hard is trying not to tear up when Mordaunt comes up to you afterward and embraces you.
Hard is also trying to scale up a small nonprofit’s fundraising so that it becomes so big that you know you’ll never have to say “no” to a family in need.
“When I say ‘it’s a little hard,’ that’s not a really good way of saying it, because I’m super excited,” Moorman said. “It’s almost easier, because I really believe it’s going to grow.”