Woog’s World: This town has many angels
Published 12:00 am, Friday, November 4, 2016
Twenty-six years ago, Al DiGuido and his wife, Chris, rented a home in Rye, N.Y. They were ready to buy, and found a listing at an affordable price in Westport. They came up, liked the Bridge Street property and gave a binder check.
Only then did they decide to explore the town.
Fortunately, it was a good match. “We stepped into something good here,” DiGuido says a quarter-century later.
His career was in digital marketing. After serving as CEO of three firms, he retired — sort of. DiGuido still consults, but spends most days running his two Saugatuck Sweets ice cream stores. One is in Saugatuck, just over the bridge from his first home. The other is in Fairfield.
But DiGuido’s passion is volunteer work. Of all the things he has done, this animates the very energetic man more than anything else.
About 20 years ago, a friend offered DiGuido tickets to a New Jersey fundraiser. New York Giants stars like Phil Simms and Lawrence Taylor were there, signing autographs and mingling. Midway through, a few speakers took the stage.
One woman said her 10-year-old had cancer. The family needed money for food. Another mother had an 8-year-old with cancer. Her husband quit his job to care for the child; they could not afford holiday gifts.
Driving home, DiGuido thought of his children. Inconsolable, he pulled off to the side of the road to collect his thoughts. When he got home, he woke up Chris and said they had to help.
The next time they entertained, the DiGuidos asked guests to make a donation to Hackensack University Medical Center. They raised a few hundred dollars.
DiGuido was hooked. As publisher of computer magazines, he asked tech companies to donate funds, too. That brought in nearly $4 million, but he wanted to institutionalize his fundraising. Al’s Angels — a nonprofit entity — was born.
It started in DiGuido’s garage in his second Westport home on Greens Farms Road. The focus was helping families affected by children’s cancer, during the holidays. Too often, as everyone else celebrates Thanksgiving, Christmas and Hanukkah, they feel especially left out. While dealing with devastating illness, they may lack the funds for meals and gifts.
The first year, a few volunteers filled 40 bins with groceries. Next weekend, at Gault’s Bridgeport facility, 800 men, women and children will pack 3,200 bins. Each will have $100 worth of meals. They’ll start at 6 a.m., and by 2 p.m., fully loaded trucks will head out. This year’s goal is to provide 10,000 kids with meals and toys.
The families get food, and the gifts will be given out at cancer hospitals and clinics around the tri-state area. Yale, Bridgeport, St. Vincent’s, Norwalk hospitals — and others in the Bronx, N.Y., New Jersey and Long Island — are all part of the Al’s Angels network.
“People are very generous,” DiGuido said, referring to time and money. “There are lots of great charities out there, but this allows you to write a check, and if you want, take an active role filling bins, loading trucks and delivering gifts.”
Volunteers run the gamut. DiGuido is thrilled to see many teenagers and families with young children working with Al’s Angels.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said of the bin-stuffing. “But it’s done with reverence and love. That message really resonates. Kids are learning that they can impact the future.”
Over the years, Al’s Angels has branched out beyond holiday help. A month ago, for example, DiGuido met Anthony Katz. The Monroe teenager has a rare form of muscular dystrophy. He was not supposed to live past age 1. He’s a confident young man with a great spirit. He moves his wheelchair with one hand. Soon, he faces another operation.
His family needed a life-equipped van. In just 15 days, Al’s Angels raised $60,000 — most in small sums — for the vehicle. “It’s a miracle,” DiGuido said.
Many of the “angels” live in Westport. “We hear a lot of negativity” about Westporters, DiGuido said. “I’m here to say there are so many people here who reach into their pockets, who act and help as soon as they learn there’s a need.”
Referring to all of the organization’s work, he adds, “You wouldn’t think $100 worth of groceries would be life-changing. But the cards and letters we get are mind-boggling. There’s a lot of heartbreak out there. We do what we can to help.”
This holiday season, DiGuido knows, supermarkets and shops will be packed. “We’re in a nice, comfortable, affluent area,” he said. “Just a couple of exits away, people are decimated by illness. They need Al’s Angels.”
Thanks to Al DiGuido — and many others — those angels are there.
For more information, or to donate or volunteer, go to alsangels.org