Holiday Gala helps raise funds for special children, the director says.

LOUGHMAN – There are folks who just can’t contain their excitement when they go to a major theme park like Disney, and act like they’re reliving their childhood all over again.

Then there’s the ones who save up all year to take a theme park vacation, and spend the entire time complaining about the long lines, crowding parking, and ticket prices.

For Rich Mergo, watching one young boy visit Disney recently turned out to an experience he’ll never forget. The boy couldn’t have been happier at the theme park.

“He was the happiest he could be,” Mergo said. “It was great to see him smiling and having fun.” 

Rich Mergo, director of development for the Sunshine Foundation's Dream Village, says their recent holiday gala raised more than $30,000 to help children.

The boy had come to Central Florida to visit the Sunshine Foundation’s Dream Village, where Mergo is the director of development. The Sunshine Foundation is a charitable organization that answers the dreams and wishes of chronically ill, disabled and abused children. This one young boy, though, left a very strong impression on Mergo.

“This little boy was really special,” he said. “He had come down with swine flu, and had both legs amputated on Christmas Eve last year. Since then, he’s been dealing with the depression and trauma of what he went through.”

The boy’s family brought him to Dream Village in the hope that a trip to the local theme parks would allow him to forget, however briefly, the agonizing medical challenges he was facing. And it seemed to work perfectly, Mergo. He was no longer a physically challenged child coping with a tough medical condition, but an excited boy ready to have fun.

“Everyone treated him like a normal kid,” Mergo said. “We let him ride every roller coaster there was. Some theme parks won’t let kids with prosthetics go on roller coasters, but this time they did. And it was great to see him so happy.”

The Dream’s Village recently held its first formal Holiday Gala on Dec. 4 at the Reunion Resort & Club, an event that Mergo said proved to be quite festive, with live and silent auctions for items that included an XBOX 360 with Kinect, round trip airfare on SouthWest Airlines and AirTran Airways, a ride for four people on the GoodYear Blimp, and dinner for two with a Limo ride and tickets to the upcoming Brad Paisley concert at the Amway Center in downtown Orlando.

It was also a fund-raising event for the non-profit agency, with a special Dream Auction that raised $5,000. That amount, Mergo said, was “enough to answer a dream” of another child hoping to visit Disney.

“There were 70-plus auction items, and overall we raised a little over $30,000,” Mergo said. “It was a great first step for us.”

He offered a special thanks to “all the volunteers that helped plan and run the gala. Without their help, this event would not have been possible. It was challenging  …  and turned out really nice.”

The event was attended by several members of the Kissimmee/Osceola County Chamber of Commerce, including Mary Ellen Kerber, who manages the Formosa Gardens shopping plaza on U.S. 192 in Four Corners. Kerber said the gala gave the guests a truly unique opportunity to meet some of the children being helped by Dream Village. Anyone who attended the gala and took part in the auction, she added, knew their support was going to a great cause.

“It really touched our hearts that night,” she said.

Mergo said the “number one dream of the children we serve is to visit the Central Florida theme parks,” and that the folks who supported the gala also helped those kids.

“Since opening 20 years ago, the Dream Village has welcomed over 20,000 special children,” Mergo said.

For more information on the Sunshine Foundation’s Dream Village and its future events, email Mergo at rich@sunshinefoundation.org, call 800-457-1976, or log on to www.sunshinefoundation.org.

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