A family that lost their daughter to cancer while she was barely into her teens has taken that tragic event and impossibly turned it into a laughing matter, and all in an effort to help others going through the same thing.
The Night of Laughter is the Sarah Grace Foundation for Children With Cancer’s major annual fundraiser. This year’s event—it’s 12th—was held at Jericho’s Milleridge Cottage on April 10 and attracted more than 200 attendees. The evening itself encompasses an extensive raffle drawing (featuring items donated by local businesses), dinner and the side-splitting performances of four professional comedians.
“They say laughter is the best medicine,” said Marissa Weippert of Hicksville, co-founder of the Foundation.
Marissa and her husband Matt’s daughter, Sarah Grace, was diagnosed with leukemia and passed away from the illness when she was only 12 years-old. In March of 2003, just before what would have been her 13th birthday, the Weipperts founded The Sarah Grace Foundation in her memory.
“My daughter was amazing. When she first got sick, she was upset, because she wanted to be able to get her perfect attendance award when she graduated school,” she said. “My daughter always thought of other people, other kids who had cancer. There was one day where we left the clinic, and she was worried about the sick babies we saw there. When I said, ‘what about you?’ she looked at me and said, ‘they have it worse than I do.’ And she was only 12. She was unbelievable, and I drew my courage from her.”
Despite Matt working full-time and Marissa working part-time, the two still manage to devote several hours almost every night to overseeing the Foundation and its myriad needs, which assists families of children fighting cancer in the tri-state area.
“When Sarah was sick, we saw what we had and didn’t have in terms of support…now we try to give that back to families who are going through what we did,” Marissa said. “We can’t afford to pay for everything, but we will offer funds for toys, or meals, or gas mileage for parents who are staying at the hospital with their child. One of the biggest requests we get, sadly, is to help with funeral expenses.”
The Sarah Grace Foundation is also the biggest local supplier of “Chemo Ducks,” an adorable stuffed animal that allows parents and doctors to explain treatment options to children within a context that they can more easily relate—that of a cuddly plush duck that’s going through the very same thing.
Hicksville resident Sue Powell has been a volunteer with the Sarah Grace Foundation since its inception in 2003. In addition to helping throughout the year in various ways, she said that every single April she buys her ticket and attends the Night of Laughter without fail in order to show her support.
“What I like about the Foundation is that they don’t put money to research…so many people do that, and I’m not saying that’s bad, but sometimes the kids are getting ignored,” she said. “When these kids are in the hospital, they’re patients…but they’re still kids, and the Sarah Grace Foundation makes sure that they still get to be kids.”
Rick Morgan has been the Master of Ceremonies of the Night of Laughter since its beginning. A comedian for more than 30 years, Morgan makes sure that they event lives up to its name. It’s something that he has a personal stake in, he said.
“When I met the Weipperts and saw the pictures of little Sarah Grace, I was so taken with their story,” he said. “Out of all the shows that I do, this is the one that is always on my mind, more than any of the others. I think about that brave little girl, and her parents. They’re such gracious people, doing what they do to help other children who are stricken with this terrible disease.”
The Night of Laughter event has grown since its humble beginnings. Originally held in a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Jericho, it soon outgrew that venue and moved the Milleridge Cottage, where it’s been held every year since.
Matt Weippert was being pulled in 80 different directions on the evening of the Night of Laughter, but once he found a second to catch his breath, he spoke not only of the painful memories of the passing of his beloved daughter, but the good that was born out that terrible happening as well.
“It’s a challenge, but the Foundation is our way of keeping Sarah alive,” he said. “It also makes everything she went through mean something. That she didn’t go through all of that suffering for no reason. Out of that suffering, we’ve tried to make it a positive thing to help other children. We’re starting our 13th year, and we’ve helped 8,000 children. I’ll say that makes it easier…it’s never easy, but it hurts less. That’s what it’s all about.”
To find out more, visit www.thesarahgracefoundation.org.