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Autumn Prom 2009

October 23, 2009

by Anna M. Jones

Karen Cunningham’s only goal was to grab her Kleenex and speech and get off the stage as quickly as she could at the Pujols Family Foundation’s annual O’ Night Divine dinner.

Then she realized Al ‘the Mad Hungarian’ Hrabosky was standing, and it hit her.

“When I saw him stand up, I was blown away,” she said. “For him of all people, then I realized everyone was standing up.”

And applauding.

Amid a sea of professional athletes and celebrities, a mom from South County had stolen the show when she talked of raising her daughter with Down syndrome in front of almost 600 people.

The fifth annual dinner, held December 5th at the Chase Park Plaza, had all the staples of a fabulous evening: great food, spirited auctions, wonderful music and photos of the Foundation’s work in 2009, not to mention 2009 National League MVP Albert Pujols and his wife, Deidre.

But the foundation, which dedicates itself to those with Down syndrome and the impoverished in the Dominican Republic, wanted to go beyond just photos to help the record number of attendees better understand how Down syndrome affects families.

So Karen, who has been active in the Pujols Family Foundation since its inception in 2005 and whose daughter Miki, 17, has Down syndrome, seemed a perfect choice to speak. Only she didn’t exactly jump on the opportunity. “I can do a lot of things, anything you ask, except talk about Miki, with her I get so emotional,” said Karen. “I honestly said I couldn’t do it.”

After some arm twisting from Pujols Family Foundation Executive Director Todd Perry, she conceded and “had three weeks of pure fright.”

Watching dentist Mark Fernandez shake a bit before his speech didn’t help, she said. But then she took to the stage and spoke of how an extra chromosome causes her daughter to look and act differently, that raising a child with special needs is not a road parents would chose. But she also explained in between a tear or two how Miki is everything you’d want in a best friend, that God’s greatest blessings come wrapped in tough packages. And she talked of what the Foundation has meant to the kids.

“Now I’m very glad I did the speech,” said a relieved Karen, who was swarmed by friends and strangers alike after the dinner while Miki quietly took in all the hoopla.

In addition to touching on the 100-plus programs the foundation has sponsored for children with Down syndrome over the years, the night also featured stories and pictures of the Foundation’s efforts in the Dominican Republic, including a trip last winter to place beds in homes where families had been sleeping in deplorable conditions as well as provide medical care.

Other efforts in the DR include Batey Baseball, which teaches leadership and accountability through baseball; a clean water program; and Operation Wonder Woman, which has helped women learn practical skills to start businesses of their own.

Much of the work in the Dominican was coordinated through Compassion International, a Christian ministry that helps those in poverty around the world.

And Bernard Okeke of Compassion International, who had been flown in from the Dominican for the dinner, was caught completely off-guard yet spoke very eloquently when he was named the Pujols Family Foundation’s Partner of the Year.

Celebrities

It was hard to miss the many celebrities in attendance, including former Cardinals such as Hrabosky, Jack Clark, Jason Isringhausen, John Mabry, Mike Matheny and Bruce Sutter.

Others included Darryl Strawberry, Orlando Cepeda, Roberto Clemente Jr., Mark Buehrle, Harlem Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemon and poker champion Dennis Phillips.

Even Stan Musial visited before the dinner.

But the biggest surprise appearance might have been that of Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who was able to stop by on his way to the winter meetings.

Not only did he come but he provided the first live auction item – ‘Manage the Cardinals for a Day in Spring Training’.

The offer included a chance to spend the day in the clubhouse, make the Cardinals lineup and sit in on sessions with pitching coach Dave Duncan, hitting coach Mark McGwire and other staff members.

In addition, he offered to match the bid price.

When it was all said and done, fellow major leaguer and St. Louis native Mark Buehrle won with a bid of $10,000. Buehrle, who will have his own spring training to attend, then surprised everyone by donating the day to Karen and Miki.

NewsChannel 5 sports anchor and auction staple Rene Knott continued to keep the live auction rolling with five other items including an Albert Pujols autographed and framed jersey, a diamond-shaped case with 10 autographed baseballs that comprised a “Field of Dreams” with autographs including Albert Pujols, Cal Ripken Jr., Bob Gibson, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial, dinner for 10 cooked by Deidre Pujols, an MVP Reactor Watch and one-year lease on a 2008 BMW 335 convertible.

As for the silent auction, more than 100 items were available. Among those that drew the most attention:
•  A framed and autographed photo of Albert and Stan Musial’s cover to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s 2009 All-Star Game section.
•  A framed photo by Scott Rovak that shows Albert actually crushing the ball when it makes contact with his bat.
•  A football signed by Archie, Peyton and Eli Manning.
•  Guitars, one autographed by the Jonas Brothers, one by BB King and another by Carrie Underwood.
•  An Arizona Cardinals helmet signed by Kurt Warner and a Minnesota Vikings helmet signed by Brett Favre.

For the first time, attendees also had the opportunity to help the foundation with a Christmas wish list through donations ranging from $25-$175 to help a child with DS attend Foundation events to donations from $250-$456 to help children in the Dominican Republic. In all, at least $240,000 was raised for the evening. It was an extremely successful evening that reminded people that giving to others is what it is all about.

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Date:
October 23, 2009
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