During the last decade, the Make-A-Wish Foundation has made big dreams – including Disney World and National Parks vacations, meet-and-greets with musical stars and new pets for families – come true for dozens of seriously ill children across upstate New York.
Meanwhile, the Starlight Children’s Foundation – another nonprofit with a similar mission – touched lives in much the same way, though with gatherings and outings that took place more regularly and, in most cases, closer to home.
That ended last fall, when the foundation stopped events in Buffalo, Rochester and Albany, leaving a void for more than 200 families in the western region of the state alone.
"I was very shocked and saddened for the families," said Elizabeth Agnello, a social worker who led Starlight efforts in Western New York.
Agnello has since worked with volunteers and impacted families to establish a new group to fill the void. The Brave Little Fighters Foundation has hosted a half-dozen gatherings, recently received its own nonprofit status, and from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Saturday will host a fundraising raffle at Healthy Zone Rink in East Aurora. Prizes include autographed Bills memorabilia, and Buffalo Sabres and Bandits game tickets. For more information, visit facebook.com/bravelittlefighters.
"I think what excites families is that they have something to count on," said Agnello, a suburban Rochester native who lives in Orchard Park and has held full-time jobs while working part time in her foundation roles. She credits an active board of directors for getting Brave Little Fighters off the ground, as well as organizing and managing a Christmas party, visits to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, two Sabres home games and a Harlem Globetrotters event. The board has focused mostly on families in Erie County as it begins to ramp up fundraising and grant writing to forge a more regional presence. The group will host its first annual Summer Festival on July 21 at American Legion Post 362 in East Aurora as part of that effort.
Q: What is the mission?
Brave Little Fighters serves children ages 2 to 18 with serious and terminal illness, and their families, through joyful and carefree outings year-round, all completely free of charge. The siblings are all also given attention, which offers a very unique kind of healing. It gives families so much to look forward to and allows them to connect with other families who truly understand the stresses they endure on a daily basis.
Q: Who came up with the foundation name?
One of the board members, Nancy Dowdall. She's a photographer by training and takes many of our photos. She became involved because she was so touched by the courage of these families. Wendy Aplin is another important board volunteer. She was critical to the success of our Christmas party and has been a key to the growth of the organization.
Q: How can families who could use a lift from your services connect with you?
The website, bravelittlefighters.org, is extremely helpful. The PDF application for events is there. I ask they send that to me before I can invite them by email.
Q: What are some of the common conditions that families are dealing with?
It ranges from Duchenne muscular dystrophy to spina bifida, leukemia, other cancers, cystic fibrosis, mild to severe cerebral palsy – and that certainly does not encompass all the illnesses.
Q: What dynamics do these families share?
Families have to band together. They become closer. This is life-changing and not only for the child. The siblings are deeply impacted as well and, of course, the parents. We're not the ones poking and prodding at them; we've gotten to bring joyous occasions for those who've come together … and families have gelled incredibly well together.
Q: Are you working with any other nonprofits who have similar missions?
Absolutely. Most particularly, the Courage for Carly Fund, which used to be Carly's Club. They've been wonderful. In addition to that, the P.U.N.T. Fund, [former Bills punter] Brian Moorman's foundation. Kelly for Kids Foundation has reached out and we've been collaborating. We've been working with the Sabres, too. They've been wonderful to us. Sabres players invite them to boxes, including Zach Bogosian.