Marty Lyons Holiday Party
Christmas always comes a little early for Marty Lyons.
Last night, Lyons' foundation hosted its annual holiday party at the Long Island Hilton in Huntington, N.Y. Lyons, former member of the New York Sack Exchange in his sixth season as the Jets' radio analyst, attends numerous charitable events each year but this is his favorite.
"This ranks as the best without a doubt," he said. "You can raise all the money you want at a golf tournament and you can raise all the money you want at a casino night, but when you witness one night of being with these kids and their families — it's priceless."
The Marty Lyons Foundation, now in its 25th year, has come a long way. Lyons remembers the first time he hosted a holiday party.
"The first year we gave out maybe 25 toys and maybe had five kids there with their siblings and parents," he said. "Last year we topped out at over 1,200 and we probably gave out or collected 12,000 toys."
For 25 years, Lyons and dedicated volunteers have helped grant the wishes of children diagnosed with terminal or life-threatening illnesses. Up until just a few weeks ago, Lyons' foundation was the only wish organization in the U.S. that entertained the thought of doing a second wish, for children who've had one wish, then had a relapse in their condition. But sadly, endowment has fallen and Lyons was forced to put a moratorium on second wishes.
"Last year we did probably 360 wishes and 70 percent of those were second wishes at an average of $4,000 a pop," he said. "Even if you reduced it to 300, you're saying 210 are second wishes and that's $800,000 you have to raise just to subsidize the second-wish program.
"Eighty percent of them aren't going to make it until 18 and now I have to tell them, 'No, I can't do it because I don't have enough money.' "
Despite agonizing over the decision, Lyons had no choice. He couldn't downsize since he employs only two full-time people. This is a foundation that has 13 chapters in nine states.
But if Lyons is able to get his endowment back up in a year's time, he said the second-wish program will be the first one he'll reinstate. His commitment has never wavered to the children and he is indebted to the countless volunteers who help make things happen.
Jets Visit the Party
"Without the support of the people who got involved in the foundation, 4,400 kids would not have had their wish," he said.
At last night's festive party, youngsters had a chance to meet Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus at the North Pole and seven members of the Jets' current squad, including WRs Jerricho Cotchery and Wallace Wright, LBs Victor Hobson and David Harris, safeties Kerry Rhodes and Eric Smith, and TE Jason Pociask. They also watched about a dozen different performances, including acts from the Jets Flight Crew and Irish dancers.
"To be able to see all these children that have survived and we've touched their lives, it's a reminder to us," Lyons said. "Three hundred sixty-four days a year we do this work and this is the payoff for one day and maybe we can do a little bit more."
Lyons has made a life of doing more. When he was asked of some recent wishes the foundation was able to make happen, he first recalled a young girl who humbly wished for a first Communion dress.
"The family was financially strapped. We got them a first Holy Communion dress and the little girl received her first Holy Communion and then she passed away," he said. "Unfortunately, the dress was used twice — once on her first Holy Communion and once to be buried in."
He also reflected on a few kids who just wanted to build relationships.
"We've had children want a dog because they feel no one takes time to communicate with them, no one takes time to be around them," he said. "If they had a companion that would spend time with them, they could build the love."
The Gift of Poetry
And then Lyons brought up Lauren, a special 14-year-old girl who has an inoperable brain tumor. Lauren, who made a second wish, wanted to take all of her poems and publish them in a book. The foundation joined with a printer and publisher and was able to publish all of her poems — Lyons estimates the final number was between 40 and 50.
Then she was invited to the White House Christmas Celebration. About 30 of Lauren's friends and classmates were there and some of her poetry was read aloud by a couple of familiar names.
"The first poem was read by the First Lady, Laura Bush," Lyons said. "The second poem was read by Jenna Bush, and then Lauren had picked 15 other people to read her poems. She actually selected my son, Jesse, to read a poem, so that in itself was an experience."
But it wasn't over. Lyons' next sight was even more surreal.
"When she got done reading her poems, she actually took a walk to the Oval Office and then took that traditional walk on the grounds of the White House with the President," he said with feeling. "That's one of those special ones where you're looking from the inside out at the White House and you see the President walking with this girl in a heavy jacket and to see her poems and hear her poems read by the First Lady — you can't really put a price on it."
Lyons was an active presence on those great Jets defensive lines, but he's busier than ever now. He does what he can and he still receives valuable help from his teammates.
"I think the most important part of the foundation is the people who volunteer their time to coordinate all the wishes," he said. "I don't go to all the meetings. I try to go to all the different fundraisers, which means one day I'm in Connecticut, the next day I'm in New Jersey, the next day I'm in Florida, and the following week I'm in Georgia. I just like to thank the volunteers and meet a few of the kids."
But nothing tops the holiday party.
"You get to see all the lives you've touched," he said.