By Ed Morrone
As Fox 29 traffic reporter and master of ceremonies Bob Kelly took the stage last Friday night, he glanced out at a sea of 500 people, many of whom were clutching and waving lime green HEADstrong towels above their heads.
In that moment, one thing was crystal clear: the 9th Annual Lime Light Gala had begun.
The main room at Vie, the enormous but elegant downtown Philadelphia venue that hosted the gala, was packed to capacity for the HEADstrong Foundation’s annual reflection and celebration of the life of founder Nicholas Colleluori, whose inspiring story has continued to help those afflicted by cancer more than 12 years following his own death from Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2006. By the time the night was over, the Lime Light Gala had raised $340,000.
Attendees were greeted in the lobby with a glass of lime green champagne, a nod to the color that has come to symbolize HEADstrong and the focus of its mission. Climbing a few stairs that ascended to the main room, guests, including Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, were greeted by a framed portrait of Colleluori, surrounded by lit candles, emphasizing the fact that his light still shined brightly.
Before Kelly officially kicked off the festivities around 8 p.m., guests were treated to hors d’oeuvres that included a raw seafood bar, a plethora of buffet-style appetizers and a large open bar. Additionally, dozens of exciting silent auction items up for bid lined both sides of the room, from autographed sports memorabilia to signed guitars by the Rolling Stones and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith.
After that, it was time for the main event. After a short opening monologue from Kelly, the night’s entertainment was introduced — Marc Spelmann, a magician and illusionist from England, captivated the room (and four judges that he picked at random from the audience) with a trick that involved a deck of cards, a Rubik’s Cube and video footage of his daughter, Isabella. Spelmann was recruited to perform at the gala after he captured the world’s attention by performing the trick on his audition for Britain’s Got Talent last year, even leaving the notoriously difficult to impress Simon Cowell speechless. Spelmann was an especially appropriate choice as the evening’s entertainer, as his wife, Tessa, was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was pregnant with Isabella, the couple’s first child.
For the first time in the history of the Lime Light Gala, a live auction of four especially prestigious items was held; prizes included a weeklong trip to Tuscany, Italy, as well as passes to a Lady Gaga concert in Las Vegas. A live fundraising appeal took place, raising $32,000 in a matter of minutes.
As she does every year, HEADstrong President and Nick’s mother Cheryl Colleluori delivered an emotional, heartfelt speech that paid tribute to Nick, as well as a plethora of others who have helped and been helped by the idea for the foundation that he created during his own cancer fight.
“It’s been said that cancer does not have a face until it’s yours or someone you love,” Colleluori said. “There is no truer statement. Tonight is about faces, the faces of HEADstrong. It all started with this face, our founder and my son, Nicholas. What a beautiful person he was both inside and out! In one of our final conversations, Nick insisted I look at him; he asked me to be the face of HEADstrong. I wasn’t sure I could. It’s because of his face, my reason and the realization this was Nick’s last gift: his creation gave our family the strength to face life without him. I couldn’t do this without you.”
Speaking of faces of HEADstrong, many of them were in attendance at the gala. Included were past and present guests of Nick’s House, which opened in Feb. 2018 and offered complimentary lodging to almost 70 families who came to Philadelphia for lifesaving cancer treatment. Nate, Nettie and Theo Prive, currently staying at Nick’s House all the way from Alabama as Theo battles leukemia approaching his 2nd birthday, were in attendance, as were past guests such as Gemma and Butch Geary, Lexi and Christen Cable, Chris and Angela Hallock, Steve and Laurie Stasonis, Judy Ripkin, David Lezinsky and Haley and Nancy Snyder.
The Snyders received the prestigious Nicholas E. Colleluori Award for courage and bravery in the face of a cancer diagnosis. Haley was just 23 years old when she was diagnosed with leukemia, and her mother, Nancy, was her bone marrow transplant match. As Cheryl said in her speech, Nancy has given Haley life in addition to saving it. Haley encouraged attendees to donate anything they could, saying that it was crucial for donors to “help others and adopt a family just like mine.”
Also recognized for their contributions was Paul Ehrlichman (who received the HEADstrong Spirit Award), a Delaware County-based businessman who has been a HEADstrong and Nick’s House donor for a decade; and Drs. John P. Plastaras and Neha Vapiwala (recipients of the HEADstrong Achievement Award), a husband and wife, partners in life and in the fight, whose passion and commitment to being on the front lines, pushing the threshold of medicine with an unyielding devotion to their patients at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, their colleagues and to their field has earned them a distinguished reputation in the radiation oncology community.
“My wife and I are in the trenches with these patients,” Plastaras said. “I want to give thanks to Nick’s House for putting them up. A place like Nick’s House is truly priceless.”
When the speeches were finished, dinner was served. Folks ended the night with a bountiful dessert selection and dancing to the live music of Jellyroll, back for the ninth consecutive year as the Lime Light Gala band. All in all, it was another truly magical evening.
“HEADstrong stands alone in focusing on the sometimes overlooked aspect of care,” Ehrlichman said. “They offer families a place to live, to eat, to share fellowship, or even just a hug. Don’t forget to support the foundation that focuses on the care.”