A festive atmosphere, created by almost 500 guests at the Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa, served as a fitting ambiance for the sold-out fundraiser held March 7 for the Challenged Athletes Foundation.
The gala “A Celebration of Will” honored the legacy of the late Robin Williams and raised more than $3 million for the newly established “Challenged Athletes Foundation Endowment in Memory of Robin Williams,” thanks in part to an anonymous donor who matched each dollar raised.
These funds will provide challenged athletes with equipment and prosthetics, and help pay for training and competition expenses for many years ahead.
In attendance were CAF board members and gala co-chairs Jeff Essakow and Jeff Jacobs — co-owners of Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa — with notable guests Congressman Scott Peters, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman, and Joan and Irwin Jacobs.
The evening brought together celebrities and athletes. Amy Purdy — CAF Paralympic and “Dancing With the Stars” performer — danced on stage, and Hall of Fame tennis champion Andre Agassi offered up tennis lessons for auction, which sold for $100,000.
Williams’ children, Zak, Zelda and Cody, presented grants to three CAF athletes who received Össur running feet, a handcycle and a mountain bike, respectively.
Participating alongside challenged triathletes, actor/comedian Williams dedicated much of his time in helping CAF grow during the past 21 years.
“He made everyone feel so special,” said Essakow in a moving speech. “He said it was ‘like coming back home, coming back to family.’”
Brianne “Breezy” Bochenek was diagnosed with bone cancer at age 10 and chose to have her leg amputated at age 11. She sang at the gala and spoke earlier of this feeling of family that was a thread running throughout the evening.
“I feel like I’m at home on the stage because I do consider CAF family,” she said. “It’s like they have put their arms around me, they make me feel so welcome.”
Breezy sang her version of “Part of Your World” from “The Little Mermaid,” modifying the words to “CAF World.”
Celeste Corcoron, a survivor of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, was spotlighted. Last year she returned to Boston to finish the marathon, with the help of specialized prosthetics.
“CAF came into my life when I hadn’t even healed from my amputation and I thought the quality of my life was over,” she said.
Paralympian Scout Bassett, who went from orphan to world-class athlete, started to run when she was 14 and it transformed her life. “I haven’t stopped since,” she said. “With CAF there are no limits to what I can do ... It made me whole.”
Sarah Reinertsen, the first woman with a prosthetic leg to finish the Ironman World Championship, became an athlete at age 11, four years after her leg was amputated because of a rare tissue disorder.
“As a kid with a disability, it was tough to get integrated into sports. When I grew up it was in a different time. We didn’t have people with disabilities on TV,” she said.
CAF changed Reinertsen’s life when she got her running leg. “And also getting access to the knowledge of how to become an athlete was huge for me. After my surgery, the hospital taught me how to walk, but it didn’t teach me how to run or how to be active.”
Reinertsen, involved with CAF for more than 20 years, served as a role model for Breezy.
“I saw a video of Sarah when she was finishing the Kona Ironman,” she recalled. “I didn’t know who she was, and I didn’t know about CAF, but it inspired me to get an amputation because I love to run, I love to be active and I knew it would still be possible.”
The two met just a month after Breezy’s amputation in 2013. Through CAF she received her running leg, and within two weeks she had decided to enter her first triathlon, the Wildflower event in Paso Robles.
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” joked Breezy. Now, through CAF, she also mentors other young girls in similar situations.
“The CAF has been here for so many people,” said Reinertsen, now training for the Rio de Janeiro Paralympic Games. “It lifts them up after tragedy or when facing physical disability.”
Reinertsen met Williams in 1998 and raced with him for 10 years. She spoke fondly of him. “Everyone knows Robin as a character on the screen, but we got to know him as a person. He was no different from us — he loved sport, and I think that sport was healing for him,” she said.
“He brought laughter and joy to the world, but he used sport as a vehicle too, to lift people up. He really did give a lot to this community.”
Visit www.challengedathletes.org to find out more or to make a donation.