Ashley Wade was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease during her senior year at Portledge School in Locust Valley, and spent the last month of 2011 fighting the ailment at Winthrop-University Hospital, unable to get out of bed.
At the height of the holiday season, Wade, who was 17 at the time, received a gingerbread house as a gift from an unknown hospital donor. It was a surprise that changed her life.
“I was so sick at the time. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t get out of bed. But the gingerbread house helped me keep my mind off it,” said Wade, of Massapequa Park. “When you’re that sick, anything that can take your mind off your illness really makes a difference.”
Inspired by the kindness of her anonymous gift-giver, and using money out of her college fund, Wade started the Ashley Wade Foundation, an organization dedicated to by providing toys, support and comfort for children with chronic illnesses and their families.
Wade’s efforts started out small. She sent care packages, held craft events and threw pizza parties for children staying at Winthrop-University Hospital. Then word started to spread.
“Pretty soon, we had families reaching out to me, asking to deliver care packages to their children at home,” Wade said. “Everything just sort of took off from there.”
Since starting the foundation, she has sent “hundreds” of baskets and raised a little more than $6,000 at the foundation’s inaugural fundraiser last year. She plans another fundraiser on Oct. 26 at The Milleridge Inn in Jericho.
At its core, the foundation serves kids and their families in its “Superstars” program. In 2012, it had three participating families, who come together for fun nights and special care packages delivered on Christmas and birthdays. It has grown to include 41 families, with the addition of its newest family earlier this month.
Wade, now 21, remains hands-on with the foundation, spending her weekends and free time coordinating events, visiting children and personally delivering care packages to families.
It’s a big responsibility for Wade, who is also working on a degree in psychology at NYIT in Old Westbury and has a part-time job as a soccer coach at Portledge School. She also takes time to fight her own battle against Crohn’s, going for routine infusion treatment every six weeks.
“It’s definitely a sacrifice,” Wade said of her busy schedule. “But when you’re there, and you see a kid smile and finally be able to relax, and their parents finally able to unwind, even for awhile, it makes it all worth it.”
Wade also has a team of supporters and the help of her co-president and close friend Alexandra Riebl, 21, of Massapequa Park.
And she drums up support through the foundation’s website and Facebook page, through which a network of local community members donate toys, goods and even event space to keep Wade’s dream alive.
“I’ll post in the Facebook group that I’m looking for a specific toy, or a pillow or blanket to put in a care package for a child, and within minutes I’ll have someone respond willing to find it and pick it up for me,” Wade said. “Without this support, none of this would be possible.”
This summer, Wade spent several days a week visiting 5-year-old Nicolas Colucci, of Babylon, who was diagnosed with pediatric cancer in May. Colucci underwent stomach surgery at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan earlier this year and was declared cancer-free at the end of August.
“Ashley gave him a Ninja Turtle pillow to hold on to as he recovered from his surgery. He wouldn’t let go of it the entire time,” said Nicholas’ mother, Tara Colucci. “I still speak to her all the time. I feel like out of a bad situation, we made a lifelong friend.”
On Aug. 26, Wade was hosting a family day pizza party for members of the foundation when she learned that she won the $10,000 “Be the Change” award from the Sheckler Foundation, a charity founded by professional skateboarder Ryan Sheckler. Wade said she intends to use the money to continue funding care packages and events, as well as launch a new program later this year.
“We want to create a space for kids with illnesses and their families to come together, where they can feel at ease, “ Wade said. “Dealing with illness can be hard, and we want children to understand that there are people who understand what the are going through, and that they’re not alone.”