Honors Marty Lyons
STORY BY MAUREEN TRAXLER • PHOTOS BY MICHAEL GERIEN COURTESY IGHL and CHRISTINE CONNIFF SHEAHAN
Celebrated football great and humanitarian Marty Lyons quotes legendary University of Alabama Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant saying: “A winner in the game of life is the person who gives of himself so that others can grow.”
Those words characterized the spirit of the evening on May 17 at the 33rd Anniversary Gala of the Independent Group Home Living (IGHL) Foundation, which honored Marty Lyons for his successful career in the worlds of sports, business and philanthropy. Yet, addressing the attendees, Lyons made clear that the real heroes and role models in life are the parents of children with disabilities or life threatening illnesses, and terminally ill children.
Sitting beside Lyons at the event was a young man named Gregory, who recently entered an IGHL program. Gregory is one of the first recipients of an iPad through IGHL’s new iPads for Autism program, designed to help facilitate communication for consumers through the use of the iPad. Observing Gregory kiss his mom’s hand before she left the room to get her camera from the car, Lyons recognized the moment as a small gesture of thanks to a mom who gives so much of herself so her son can have a good life.
“The real heroes in life,” Lyons emphasized in his remarks to the audience that evening, “are the people like Gregory’s mom Maria who dedicate every day of their lives to their child.” Calling this incident “one of life’s lessons,” he adds that such gestures often go unnoticed. “In life you have to capture the moment, take a mental picture and never let it leave you,” he continues. “While children often look for role models, for us as parents, we should look to those parents who care for sick, disabled or terminally ill children and who sacrifice to keep their young, and their old, with them as long as possible, as role models.”
IGHL and its Mission
“Marty Lyons is contagious in terms of his excitement and his enthusiasm,” says Walter Stockton, founder and CEO of IGHL. “He’s the kind of person we like to recognize not only as a good friend of IGHL, but also as good friend of the community at large. Marty has taken his fame from sports and benefited so many people who needed help.”
IGHL operates 53 group homes and 25 day rehab centers for developmentally disabled adults, as well as a 32-bed nursing-intensive facility for senior citizens. It cares for children through its affiliates: New Interdisciplinary School, a learning center for children (birth to 5 years) and families, which also provides free evaluations to parents who have concerns about their child’s development; and Angela’s House, a program that assists families caring for medically frail children living at home or in one of its homes, which provides 24-hour nursing support. IGHL and its affiliates serve over 5,000 children and adults in their Suffolk County facilities.
Angela’s House has been an IGHL affiliate for the past 20 years, and together they operate two homes—opening their first house for medically frail and technology dependent children under age 21 in 2000 in East Moriches, and then a second house in Smithtown.
“We’re now building a new Angela’s House,” announces Stockton, “which will open in the fall, in Stony Brook near the University. This house will service medically frail children who are also vent-dependent, needing the assistance of a breathing apparatus.” Stockton adds that Angela’s House provides an outlet so that medically frail children can stay at home on Long Island, instead of going to Massachusetts, Pennsylvania or further away for those services.
A Smithtown resident, Lyons has visited the local Angela’s House, and says, “I was impressed at how the staff is able to facilitate the needs of kids who are medically frail. The House has a homey atmosphere, more relaxed than a hospital scene.”
IGHL’s third affiliate, Flower Barn, is a local greenhouse and nursery growing annuals and perennials for sale to the community. Employing clients from the day rehab program, it’s fully self-sustaining—staff salaries are provided entirely through the sale of the products they grow. Flower Barn provides an opportunity for clients to gain satisfaction from working in the community and learn important job skills.
iPads for Autism
Spearheaded by Frank Lombardi, director of the IGHL Foundation, iPads for Autism was launched in March. All donations go entirely toward the purchase of iPads for autistic children and adults with developmental disabilities, and are distributed through IGHL’s educational and residential settings. More information can be found on rockethub.com (click Explore in the top left corner and search for iPads for Autism).
“Marty’s remarks struck a chord with many of the parents who were in attendance at the Gala,” comments Lombardi. “He continues to be a champion for children and adults in the entire Long Island community.”
An Impressive Career
Following Lyons outstanding career in college football, he went on to achieve an exemplary professional football career with the New York Jets, spanning 12 years and playing both defensive tackle and defensive end. Today, Lyons serves as the Senior Vice President of Operations at the LandTek Group where, by merging his knowledge of sports with his marketing acumen, he helped develop the company into one of the premier turf distributors in the tri-state area.
Even beyond the football field, Lyons has become an achiever in life, founding and bringing the Marty Lyons Foundation through 30 years of fulfilling wishes for terminally ill children. His idea for the Foundation stemmed from a trio of events that happened in one week in March 1982. Lyons realized the pain of the sudden passing of his father, the unfairness of the death of a young person he was mentoring, and the wonder of new life with the birth of his first child, his son Rocky. With the intermingling of grief and joy, Lyons was moved to use his growing football fame and his personal talents to establish a foundation dedicated to helping children find the courage and strength to fight their illnesses. By granting their wishes, he hoped to give them the same opportunity he had—the opportunity to feel important, which dominated the young football star’s life as he heard fans call his name or cheer when he walked on the field. His desire was to foster hope and inspiration in children by making possible what they had perceived as impossible.
The Marty Lyons Foundation has grown to operate in 13 states, including New York, New Jersey, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, Massachusetts, Georgia, and now Alabama, where the Foundation will work with the Birmingham Children’s Hospital, one of the leading pediatric teaching centers in the country. Despite the difficult economic years of 2009-10 when the Foundation cutback on “second wishes,” the Marty Lyons Foundation has granted over 6,000 wishes. While the top requests are usually a trip to Disney World, a computer or a chance to meet a celebrity, Lyons says the Foundation has also fulfilled what may appear as simple wishes, like a First Holy Communion dress, a high school class ring, a horseback ride or a pet dog.
“You can always make more money to fund wishes, but you can’t make more time,” says Lyons. “We’re always fighting time with these children.” He added that the Foundation’s ability to grant over 6,000 wishes is “a tribute to everybody, every chapter, every support in the community.” After expenses for fundraising events are paid, all of the remaining proceeds go to the wish program.
Lyons and a small group of volunteers ran the program, pro bono, for some 19 years before hiring their first paid employee. Now with 30 years of programming, Lyons reports that the Foundation has just hired a wish coordinator and an events coordinator with marketing background. The two newcomers with recent degrees from Columbia and Penn State Universities are young and energetic, says Lyons, and “represent the next generation who will follow us in our mission.” Lyons’ philosophy may be summed up in his words: “The more you do for others, the more you realize who you are, and the more you realize what you’re capable of doing.”
The Significant Work of Foundations
While the Marty Lyons Foundation grants wishes for terminally ill children, the IGHL Foundation was established in 1996 to raise funds for programs and services for persons with developmental disabilities. In similarity, the two foundation founders saw a need and framed a way to address that need.
Lyons was nominated for the IGHL honor by his friend and fellow radio and television sportscaster Ann Liguori, who served as the Gala’s Master of Ceremonies. Liguori has her own Foundation whose mission is to raise funds and awareness for not-for-profits who work in the field of cancer prevention and care.
“When you attend an event like the IGHL Gala, you get a feeling for why you are being honored,” says Lyons. “You are there as a representative of your family, the values that your family taught you, and as in my case, a representative of the people of my Foundation. You are honored for the people you represent, more than for your individual accomplishments.” Lyons thanked the IGHL Foundation for the “tremendous job” it does, and congratulated the Gala attendees, saying, “It’s people like you who take the time and energy, and provide the resources, to make the foundation grow.”
“The Marty Lyons Foundation is what I have devoted my life to,” says Lyons, who encourages people to “adopt a charity.” He adds, “Everybody has the ability to make a difference.”