INDUSTRY MEMBERS who want to give back while doing what they do best should consider KIDSgala. The foundation, founded by David McKnight, celebrates kids who face major obstacles, such as illness. It got its start after McKnight reconnected with an old friend, Shelly Burton, at a high school reunion.

“I was bullied in high school, and she supported me and made sure people didn’t do that to me,” McKnight says. “At the reunion, she told me she was going through a life-altering experience with her daughter, who had cancer. After that, I stayed in daily communication with her.” 

McKnight says that he was struck by the lack of opportunities for a family to celebrate the unsung accomplishments of a child struggling with illness or other major obstacles. “These children don’t get the time to learn how to ride a bike or go to school or just do the things we all take for granted,” he says. “I thought, I’m going to shoot where the geese are flying. I do events. I want them to be able to celebrate their accomplishments, all the experiences they go through.” 

He began to plan a party to celebrate his friend’s ailing daughter, Nicole Marie. But before the party could happen, Nicole Marie died from her illness. She was 9 years old. Rather than abandon his plans, though, McKnight decided to create the KIDSgala foundation in Nicole Marie’s memory, with a mission to provide a celebration of life achievements for children who are battling a life-altering illness or other major obstacles. He recruited seven board members, including Kathleen Reid at the Royal Park Hotel in Rochester.

The organization’s debut fundraiser was held at the Royal Park. Denise Illitch served as honorary chair and TV reporter Erin Nicole was the emcee. Shelly Burton spoke at the event, which honored Nicole Marie’s life. “All that support and help I received from Shelly, I was able to give back to her daughter,” McKnight says. “It was gratifying.” 

The event’s success depended in part on the outpouring of in-kind donations from suppliers, including the venue and A/V and entertainment providers. McKnight says KIDSgala is seeking partnerships with suppliers that will offer cost savings for the events. His vision, he says, is to tailor the parties to the individual child, to reflect his or her hobbies, interests and dreams, as well as milestones.

Families of interested children can apply to the organization and must have a referral from a social worker. The board chooses the event recipients and McKnight plans the event with help from his company, Emerald City Designs. The first party, held in November, celebrated Max, a young boy with Down syndrome, cataracts and leukemia.

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