story and photos by Emily Hilley-Sierzchula
More than a thousand people sampled thirteen regional wines and a myriad of food Friday night (Feb. 21) at the 7th annual Wine Opener, which benefitted the Arkansas chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
Cystic Fibrosis is a genetic disorder that affects the lungs, pancreas, liver, intestines and sinuses. People with CF often suffer from “repeated, serious lung infections,” according to the National Institutes of Health. CF affects about 30,000 Americans, 300 of them in Arkansas, according to the CFF.
The sold-out event was expected to raise "at least $250,000," which is $50,000 more than last year, said Diane Byram, NWA development director. The first Wine Opener raised $35,000, which means that fundraising numbers for the organization have skyrocketed more than 600%.
"We're very efficient with our funds, and nationally more than 90% goes toward funding research and providing quality care for patients," Byram said.
The foundation is a Better Business Bureau accredited charity, which means it met 20 accountability standards.
Because CF affects relatively few people, Byram said there is no federal funding and little grant money available to the organization.
"The money we raise buys science; it's invested into pharmaceutical companies" to create an economic incentive, she said.
There are at least 20 medicines in various stages of development. Just 50 years ago, people with CF used to live into early childhood, "now they live into their 20s, 30s, even 40s, which is miraculous," Byram said.
The special guest speaker was Ronnie Sharpe, a man with CF who started CysticLife, a supportive online community. He spoke about the milestones and hurdles in his life, including the “daily grind” of at least four hours of various treatments and exercise.
“Before my wife and daughter came into my life, I didn’t care about milestones,” he said in his speech. He teared up when he spoke about wanting to be part of his daughter’s milestones: “I will walk her to the school bus on the first day of kindergarten…I will hold her hand and walk her down the aisle on her wedding day.” The audience gave him a standing ovation.
In addition to wine and speeches, the event is known for its large auction: The John Q. Hammons Center was packed with more than 300 items for the live, silent and “super-silent” auctions. The super-silent auction items were all “high-dollar,” Byram said. People spent big at the live auction, too, such as when someone paid $2,700 for a puppy.
Michelle McFadden, who still serves as co-chairwoman, started the Wine Opener event to help raise money for CF patients like her son Luke. He is now a baseball player for Rogers High School.
The executive chairmen for the event were Jason Fremstad, director of wine and spirits at Wal-Mart and Louis Greth, director of movies at Wal-Mart. Many of the volunteers at the event were Wal-Mart associates, Byram said.
"Over the years we’ve added more people, more sponsors, more wine vendors, and here we are today," Byram said.