Gary Weishaar, of Sykesville, didn't expect volunteering for the National MS Society to be his calling. But after his wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, he organized a golf tournament to raise money for the National MS Society.
Last week he was inducted into the National MS Society, Maryland Chapter Fundraising Hall of Fame at the 2013 Research Symposium and Volunteers Awards. Over the course of 18 years, Weishaar has raised more than $100,000 for the National MS Society.
The Times had a conversation with Weishaar about his wife's MS and how philanthropy helps those who suffer from MS.
Q: How did you begin volunteering for the National MS Society?
A: In 1995, my wife was diagnosed with MS, and ... our doctor recommended us to the newly diagnosed meetings. And once we went to the newly diagnosed meetings it was extremely eye-opening for us because we saw people that were in great need of walking assistance, with the stories that they told about the hardships they were encountering and just difficulties that they had to live day by day.
It was extremely eye-opening for us not only because Kim was just diagnosed but also because this was a world we were now exposed to. My involvement with the MS Society, I didn't know much about it. We were still two weeks post-diagnosis, so we didn't know much about it. But once we went to this newly diagnosed seminar and we saw all the effects of MS, and with Kim still having the effects of her significant exacerbation, we needed to learn more about the disease.
Q: Could you tell me a little bit more about the MS Golf Tournament?
A: Again going back to 1995, when Kim was diagnosed, we had significant help from the MS Society. We had individuals who were calling to offer help to Kim and what they went through and how they were coping with the disease. Everyone from social workers calling to health-care providers coming to see Kim with physical therapy, just the entire gamut of help and assistance not only through Kim but also through the MS Society was overwhelming to us. I felt that it was fitting that they gave us so much help and support and guidance and advice that it needed to be reciprocated in some way. At the time, I was a really avid golfer and didn't know what to do other than the standard normal golf tournament. So in July of 1995 that's when I started my first golf tournament.
Q: What kind of people came out to your first one compared to everyone now?
A: The first year, we had 40 golfers. We raised $142. We probably had 150 door prizes so it kind of got expensive after sleeves of golf balls and golf towels for the golfers. Looking back at it now, it's pretty funny. Ironically, it's funny. But it started with 40 people, and the following year I think we were around 120 and from the third year through last year normally the golf tournament is sold out as soon as I select the date. We normally have a waiting list of eight to 10 foursomes that want to play. It is overwhelming. All of the people who play - one of the more special things about this tournament - everyone who plays I personally know. They're either friends of mine or colleagues of mine that play and want to help the cause and they are so dedicated to this golf tournament and to what it represents.
It's not about anyone or anything in particular; it's about when I started this I wanted Mark [Rhoder, the president of the MS Society] to indicate all of the money we raise through this golf tournament we request that it go to the transportation services to MS patients who either can't drive or lost their license due to the effects of MS. [The transportation service] takes them to the store, fixes their prescriptions up, makes sure they meet their doctor's appointment. Or in the alternative, the funds we raise for the tournament underwrites the medications the individuals need in order to maintain their standard of living. Mark always grants my requests that money is funneled to these individuals.
Not only do we underwrite the transportation cost, we also underwrite the medical cost of all MS patients in the state of Maryland that are somehow affiliated with the National MS Society. The Maryland chapter, they receive certain grants from the state and federal and state grants. Those grants underwrite research and development of drugs for therapies and MS. It's great that the MS Society has that research and development as part of their mission, but what I've tried to do is drive down [the cost] a little bit more to help individuals make one day easier than the prior day. Either getting to a doctor's appointment or the cost of the drugs for MS treatment is astronomical. A lot of individuals have either lost their jobs because they can no longer work and perform their duties. Others are forced into retirement where maybe they lost their health insurance or the co-pays on these health insurances are so significant, its either, do I pay for the medication or put bread on the table?
Q: What does it mean to you to be inducted to the hall of fame?
A: It's not an award for me, it's an award for everyone who comes out. Last year, we had 164 players that came out. We have individuals that champion this cause that I meet on annual basis, or otherwise all they do is say 'What can I do this year? What can I do to help you?' That's who the award should go to. I'm a person that walks into a door or that walks into a business and asks for a door prize or I ask my friends who are successful businessmen to help underwrite some of the cost of the tournament. They're the ones that always say, 'Absolutely. What do you need? What else can I do?'
This award is nice, but this tournament is not about one person. It's not about me. It's not about anything other than helping other people that are less fortunate, let's say, than my wife Kim is. They come out, all my friends, some of the colleagues I've met in the past that have continued to come to this tournament, I sometimes see them once a year. They see me, they see Kim, they see my children, they see my children growing up. From that standpoint, it's selfish for me to say it's a time and opportunity to see my friends again. Everyone collectively is responsible for the success that this tournament has seen through these 18 years.
Q: Are there other organizations close to your heart or is MS the one for you?
A: Primarily, because it is such a personal issue with me, with Kim, I sink the majority of my time into that. I do other volunteer work, but this is the one that is primarily closest to my heart and it's the one that I invest the time in.
Q: How is your wife doing?
A: It depends on the day. During the summertime, it is extremely challenging for her. We hold the tournament the third Friday every single July. Two of the last three years that day has been the hottest day on record for that year. Because ... heat exacerbates the issues related to MS, Kim has struggled on those days. There are times where she's broken down, she's had to just go inside. There are times she's had to leave the golf course. It's day to day. There are times when Kim's legs or limbs are numb. There are times right now her eyesight is beginning to fade.
When Kim was newly diagnosed, Kim and I were newlyweds. I wasn't mature when when Kim was diagnosed with this. She spent eight days in the hospital. She was given several therapies of steroid treatments, which made her have significant physical changes, and you go from a newlywed scenario to a forever-altering issue in terms of this disease. You kind of grow up a little bit quicker. I appreciate you asking about her.
If this tournament is about anyone, it's about my wife. It's about those who care about their wives; they care about their husbands. One of the greater aspects of the tournament - numerous individuals who actually have MS participate.
We had one year a lady who played who could not get out of the golf cart, but she just wanted to be in the golf tournament. That's the kind of spirit from a personal perspective that this tournament represents. The 160 or so individuals that play every year, the Outback Steakhouse that generously donates the dinner and food at the tournament and the last three years we've had [a company] that has brought in a breakfast for 160 golfers. That is just absolutely incredible. These are individuals that all ask me, 'When's the date and what else can we do to make it better?' When you hear that from individuals who have the power and the authority to get things done, it's just so humbling that they donate to cause like this one.
Q: Is there anything else I might have missed?
A: There's five individuals that go above and beyond the greatest expectations that I can ever have. Scott Bell, who owns Chesapeake Finishing, writes substantial checks to this tournament. Ray Kenna, who is too generous to me and this tournament. The third is Ole Ramirez, who two weeks after the tournament just sent me a check that is just uncalled for. Rick Borowski, who is really a conduit for all these individuals with their substantial generosity. And the last person is Greg Williams, who owns B&E Storage. All of these individuals, with the exception of Ray and Scott, are Carroll County citizens and they are incredibly, incredibly generous and those types of individuals who, year in and year out, all they say is 'What can I do?' It is just totally totally humbling for me.