Paying it forward isn’t just a slogan for some Warrington alumni. It’s a way of life.
Whether impacted by a frightening diagnosis, a moving compassion for children or a family heartbreak, these Gators have made a profound commitment to better the lives of others.
And they’re not the only Warrington alumni making a difference. Their dedication to helping others is an inspiration to us all, and a stirring reminder of the passion of The Gator Nation.
Like most 18-year-olds before they enter college, E.J. Rabell felt invincible.
Then Rabell’s back began to hurt. He experienced numbness in his feet that moved up to his waist. Later, he could barely walk. After an MRI revealed three lesions on his spinal cord, doctors diagnosed Rabell with Multiple Sclerosis, a disease that attacks the central nervous system.
“The doctors didn’t know if my muscle function would return,” Rabell said.
Rabell embarked on a rigorous drug and physical therapy regimen, which included daily injections of Copaxone. Fortunately, it worked. He was symptom-free after a few months, and he hasn’t experienced a relapse in more than a decade. Rabell’s recovery gave him a new perspective on life.
“I got a second chance,” Rabell said. “I asked myself, ‘How can I give back?’”
His answer has been an unwavering dedication to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s Greater Carolinas chapter. E.J. and his wife, Laura, are two of the chapter’s most active volunteers. E.J. and Laura, who live in Charlotte, serve as chairs for the Great Gatsby Gala, a 1920s-themed benefit that raises more than $50,000 annually. The couple also helped create MS Movers and Shakers, an organization of Charlotte-area, young professionals working to increase awareness and engage peers in the fight against MS. They also give their time on MS Service Day, where volunteers complete projects for those living with MS.
“I look at my diagnosis as a gift,” E.J. said. “It completely altered my view of life. I don’t take anything for granted, and I want to try to make a difference in this world.”
Norm Wedderburn remembers the first formal wish he granted as a volunteer for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. It was Dec. 21, 2000 when he met Merril, a boy with cystic fibrosis.
“We gave him an English bulldog named Pete,” said Wedderburn, recounting the visit like it was yesterday. “December 21st is the shortest day of the year, but his mother said it felt like the longest because Merril wouldn’t stop playing with Pete.”
The chance to bring joy to the lives of children with life-threatening diseases like Merril is what Wedderburn lives for. Wedderburn is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Make-A-Wish Southern Florida, a chapter that has granted more than 9,500 wishes since its inception in 1983.
Wedderburn has been a part of Make-A-Wish Southern Florida for almost 20 years beginning as a board member in 1998, and was later elected its chairman. The board asked Wedderburn to lead the chapter after Wedderburn’s predecessor, Nancy Strom, lost her battle with cancer in 2005. It would mean leaving a successful law practice.
“I invested a lot in my law practice,” Wedderburn said. “But I saw this as a new challenge with a new organization I have a passion for.”
Suffice to say, Wedderburn has no regrets. And he knows the value and change a granted wish can bring.
“What we get to do is change the trajectory their lives are on; change the mindset of not just the child, but the entire family,” Wedderburn said. “Sickness is not everything. There’s still a great life out there, and things you can wish for and get. That’s a glorious thing, and can be a turning point in how they define their sickness and their lives.”
As Jon Albert’s wife, Jill (BSBA ’83, MBA ’89), battled late stage breast cancer, he realized Jill wasn’t the only one suffering. He also saw pain, despair and uncertainty in the eyes of their children—Jake and Jamie— then 9 and 7, respectively.
“Children are the victims here, too,” Jon said. “They’re losing their heroes at such a vulnerable time.”
Unfortunately, the Albert family lost their hero in November 2006. Despite her prior excellent health, early detection, six rounds of chemotherapy, radiation and a double mastectomy, Jill’s cancer metastasized to her bloodstream.
She passed away at 45.
The Alberts made sure to make as many memories as possible so Jake and Jamie would not forget their mother—a major, gut-wrenching concern of young parents who are succumbing to late stage cancer. Jon is helping young families all over the country make those special, lasting and positive memories. He and Jill established the Jack & Jill Late Stage Cancer Foundation. Jill died two weeks after the launch.
The foundation provides families with a Mom or Dad diagnosed with very little time left a WOW! Experience®, which serves as a timeout together as a family. JAJF treats families to fabulous resorts, cruises, VIP status at award shows and professional sporting events, and private one-on-one's with a host of celebrities.
While Jon's fervent wish is that advances in treatment will continue to spare young families the need for and importance of JAJF, he is determined to be there for those who are prescribed to the Foundation.
"There is a need to keep fighting the fight,” Jon said. “There is also a vital need to keep fighting for cherished family time for these young parents who just won't be saved by the next wonder drug or trial, to provide them lasting, positive memories as a family....while they can.”
Here are some more Warrington alums who are giving back: