Vickroy: After 14 years of granting wishes, she’s calling it quits
By Donna Vickroy email@example.com Twitter: @dvickroy August 23, 2013 6:44PM
Sally Foy Leigh (left) gets ready to hand out Make-a-Wish hats to volunteers at a thank you party at Jenny's Steakhouse in Chicago Ridge. The volunteers include Tony Albarello (center), of Crestwood, and Todd Courtright, a partner in the restaurant. | Donna Vickroy~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 26, 2013 6:43AM
There’s 17-year-old Cassandra, who has an immune deficiency disorder. She got to travel from Oak Lawn to the big island of Hawaii so she could see volcanoes.
There’s Selena, 7, of Orland Park, who suffers from a blood-clotting disorder. She went to Disney World and had her photo taken with a cast of characters.
And there’s Luke, 6, of Chicago’s Southwest Side. He has leukemia, but he was able to forget about that for a while when he visited Disney World and Universal Studios.
These are just a few of the seriously ill children who have been granted wishes through the Make-A-Wish Foundation with the help of donations raised by Sally Foy Leigh and her band of fundraising buddies.
Leigh, a bartender from Worth, has a knack for bringing folks together to support a good cause.
“And what’s a better cause than helping a sick kid?” she said.
The group began organizing golf outings to benefit Make-A-Wish applicants 14 years ago, first at Little Richie’s bar in Chicago Ridge (now called The Grove) and later at Jenny’s Steakhouse farther east along 111th Street.
It has raised more than $400,000 — enough money to grant 62 sick children the thrill of a lifetime. And having reached its goal, it’s calling it quits. The final outing was July 27 at Meadows Golf Club in Blue Island.
A couple of weeks later, Leigh held a thank-you party at Jenny’s for the many friends and fellow volunteers who helped make each outing a success and a dream come true for area youngsters. As buckets of beer were delivered to patio tables along with platters of hors d’oeuvres, Leigh explained why she was hanging up her fundraising hat.
“It’s just time,” she said. “We’ve reached our goal, which was to get to $400,000. And now it’s time to stop.”
It hasn’t always been easy, particularly once the economy started to nosedive.
“But if you want to feel good about yourself, help a kid who’s sick,” Leigh said. “Just being able to put a smile on a kid’s face is enough for me.”
And enough for many others as well, apparently.
Leigh raised enough money each year to help bestow three or four wishes, at about $6,000 a pop. Most of the kids who were helped came from the Southland or Chicago’s South Side.
“I tried to keep it local,” she said. “You can request that with Make-A-Wish.”
In all that time, only two of the youngsters succumbed to their illnesses or, in the case of a girl named Sarah, secondary health issues.
Sarah had been awarded a trip to Disney World after last year’s fundraiser.
“She came in and thanked me and gave me a big hug,” Leigh said.
But then Sarahe contracted West Nile virus. Her small body, already weakened by leukemia, couldn’t handle the added stress, and she died before her wish could be granted, Leigh said, wiping away a tear.
“I know I come off as a hardcore, but I’m really a moosh,” she said.
A grateful moosh. Just try to ask Leigh about herself, about why this cause is important to her, and she gets choked up and deflects the attention by introducing you to all “the wonderful friends who made this possible.”
There’s Tony Albarello, of Crestwood, who Leigh met while she was tending bar at Burr Oak Bowl some 25 years ago. There’s Gene and Sharon Lammel, who helped with paperwork and mailings for the annual golf outings. And there is Mona Venegas, Christopher Lisek and John Crescent, to name a few — all good friends, all good-hearted people who have been willing to pitch in any way they can.
But when you try to interview them, they turn the spotlight back on Leigh.
“She’s the driving force behind all this,” Gene Lammel said.
Leigh grew up on the Southwest Side, in St. Denis Parish in the Ashburn community. She graduated from Bogan High School and has tended bar all her life. Her mother died of breast cancer when Leigh was young. Leigh also has battled the disease and is a four-year survivor.
Her entry into the world of do-gooders came years ago when she organized a candlelight bowl that raised $20,000 to help her visually impaired nephew. She’s also helped raise money for Jerry’s Kids and the Ronald McDonald House.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s always worth it,” she said. “It gives you a good feeling.”
Golf outings had been a big deal at Little Richie’s before Leigh started working there. One day, Richie Bryles, who died last spring, suggested that Leigh put one together for Make-A-Wish. The rest, as they say, is history.
Plans for each summer outing would begin in February. Golfers paid a fee to play and to attend a dinner party afterward at Jenny’s. Other donors pitch in $100 to sponsor a hole. Among those who paid $100 to sponsor this year’s event were Kenwood Wine and Liquors, Whittingham Meats in Alsip and Chicago Ridge Fraternal Order of Police No. 12. Among those who gave even more: Cosme Landscaping & Maintenance, High Hopes Learning Center in Chicago Ridge and Local 2 of the International Union of Elevator Constructors.
Every person who participates or sponsors or simply makes a donation gets a letter of appreciation.
Following through has always been a Leigh trademark. After each golf outing, she made sure everyone involved received a thank-you letter that included information on the children whose wishes had been made possible through their generosity.
Lammel just mailed out this year’s batch.
“That’s something a lot of charities don’t do,” he said. “We want everyone who donated to know where the money went, how it helped.”
Lammel is pursuing a cause of his own this year. He and his wife recently learned that their 3-year-old grandson, Jack, has neurofibrosis, with an inoperable tumor on his frontal lobe. The Lammels recently completed a Make-A-Wish application on his behalf.
Todd Courtright, one of the owners of Jenny’s Steakhouse, said Leigh’s outings would result in huge parties at the restaurant, sometimes 400 to 500 people.
Though Leigh has been the motivation behind the annual events, Courtright suspects that someone will step up and take over the cause because “it’s a good one.”
“It feels great to help sick kids,” he said. “And it’s a great thing for all these local businesses to come together and give back.”