The stars turned out in strength for the Viscardi Center’s 49th annual Celebrity Sports Night, helping the Albertson-based school and vocational center draw nearly $1 million in donations on Thursday, May 14.
A trio of former New York Jets players played key roles in the evening’s success, as Joe Namath, Wesley Walker and John Schmitt signed autographs preceding the annual fundraising dinner.
Broadway Joe and Schmitt, who were the center on the Jets’ Super Bowl championship team in 1969, appeared with students from the Viscardi School on stage during the dinner. The stage skit had some of the celebrities, including Namath, trying out for the Viscardi Glee Club in what were supposed to be very competitive auditions.
As of Friday, donations from Viscardi’s sports night attendees, who also bid on a silent auction of sports memorabilia, was approaching $1 million and counting, according to Viscardi spokeswoman Kim Brussell, who said contributions from last year’s sports nigh—Viscardi’s biggest yearly fundraiser—drew more than $1 million. All proceeds go to support Viscardi’s vaunted school for severely disabled children and its Abilities Inc. adult vocational program.
“It’s not always important to be number one. Look at me, I’m number 12,” Namath, wearing his old Jets jersey, told one of the students. “Instead of competing with each other, why not be the best glee club in Viscardi history?”
Namath appeared at Viscardi’s sports night last year and came back due to popular demand. Schmitt, who knew Viscardi founder Henry Viscardi personally, has been coming to the sports night’s since 1967.
“Henry Viscardi was a friend of mine. It’s just a great place,” Schmitt said while signing autographs. “The things they do for the kids and the adults who come here are just phenomenal.”
Walker, the former standout receiver for the Jets, said coping with his own disability of blindness that he has had since birth has given him a special feeling for Viscardi that has seen him help support the institution and serve as a mentor for kids there over nearly 40 years.
“I always have a special place in my heart for the disabled,” Walker said. “I try to give some encouragement to the kids. If I can change a life, that’s a great thing.”
Former Olympics figure skating champion Sara Hughes has been attending the sports night festivities since 1998, a few years before she struck gold in the 2002 Winter Olympics.
“I love the school and the kids. Every time I spend time with them I have fun,” Hughes said. “Having places like this is important to the community.”
Former New York Islanders star Clark Gillies, who has been helping with fundraising at Viscardi since 1978, was designated Sportsman of the Year at this year’s event.
“The work they do with all the kids and the way the kids come here and go on to lead productive lives makes this a special place,” Gillies said.
Jim Leyritz, a former New York Yankees utility player, said he was in New York to promote his own foundation, dubbed The Greatest Save, to prevent sex trafficking and kidnapping, and was glad to attend Viscardi sports night.
“Having my own foundation , I know what it’s like to get people to support a cause,” he said.
Victor Calise, commissioner in the New York City Mayor’s office for People with Disabilities, said he was particularly honored to receive the Roy Campanella Award, for his efforts in the disabilities field.
“My father, who was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, loved Roy Campanella, so this is a special award,” Calise said.
Luke Visconti, CEO of Diversity Inc., also received recognition for his work and Robin Hayes, president and CEO of JetBlue Airways, received the award for Corporate Excelleince in Disability Best Practices.
John Kemp, Viscardi Center president and CEO, extolled the quality of the education and training children and adults receive at the Viscardi School and Disabilities, the vocational training center. He said one Viscardi high school student may be attending Yale University.
“Here’s our philosophy: we believe each child and each adult should have a good life,” Kemp said in remarks during the sports night dinner program. “High school graduates leave here tenacious, believing their lives have value and ready to take on life.”
He noted the success of Viscardi graduate Robert Pipia, who was elected as district judge in November last year.
A live auction, conducted by Bo Dietl, drew significant contributions for a number of different contributed offerings.
A night at the Metropolitan Opera for eight people drew a winning bid of $14,000. A pair of tickets for next year’s Final Four in the annual NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament went for $10,000. A Citi Field suite for 15 people at a New York Mets game drew a $13,000 contribution. A foursome at Sebonack Hills Golf Club went for $10,000 and Dietl drew $16,000 from two separate tables for dinner for eight at Rao’s.
“Every dollar helps this school continue,” Dietl said when the auction concluded.
Sports night sponsors included the Iris and Saul Katz & Family, Ralph and Lucy Palleschi, Astoria Bank, Heritage Strategies LLC, JetBlue Airways and the Pascucci Family Foundation.