Throwing strikes to defeat ALS

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The annual Phillies Phestival took place at Citizens Bank Park.

By Lindsey Nolen

For the past 33 years, thousands of fans have come to the Phillies Phestival, which was held last Thursday (May 11), to “strike out ALS.” Yet, what many attendees don’t realize is there is a dog to thank for the event’s inception.

The story begins with Ellyn Phillips, the fourth president of the ALS Association Greater Philadelphia Chapter. In 1984, Phillips lost her husband, Alan L. Phillips, to the disease. A year before, the couple had come to the Greater Philadelphia Chapter for support and through it met a wonderful group of patients and caregivers.

The year of her husband’s death, Phillips was asked to be president of the chapter, and in supporting her efforts to fight the disease, soon after her parents, Malvina and Morton Charlestein, thought of a potentially useful connection that could assist in the charity’s work.

At the time, Phillips’ cousin was living in a home near former part-owner of the Phillies Bill Giles and his wife Nancy. The Giles had a pet dog who would run into her cousin’s yard quite often, and that’s how the neighbors were introduced.

“My cousins knew that my mom was trying to find someone who knew the Giles, because my mom thought, and rightly so, ‘that ALS belongs in baseball,’” Phillips said. “My cousin gave my mother Nancy’s name and phone number. At the same time, an article appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer in July 1983 that featured a story about my husband’s battle with ALS.”

From there, a meeting was set up with Phillips, her mother, Rochelle Moss — the president of the National ALS Foundation who subsequently succumbed to ALS as did her father and sister — and members of the Phillies organization. Also present was now-chairman of the Phillies, David Montgomery, and members of the Phillies Community Services team, including Chris Wheeler, Regina Castellani, Vince Nauss and Vicky Dernier, a player’s wife.

Although ALS was a relatively unknown and unproven charity at the time, through dedication, hard work and love, she and her team proved themselves and became the principal charity of the Phillies. Through her work, in 1984 the Phillies hosted their first event in support of ALS — a fashion show that raised $28,000. Four years later, after a few members of the group went to observe a Flyers’ wives carnival, they realized they could fundraise on a much larger scale, and thus introduced the Phillies Phestival in 1989.

Looking back at how far the Phestival has come, Phillips knows her late husband would be proud. Way before their journey with ALS began, she remembers sitting with her husband in the 700 level of Veterans Stadium during the sixth game of the 1980 World Series when Tug McGraw struck out Willie Wilson to clinch the Phillies’ first World Series victory.

“I’ll also never forget when we were on our first date he found out I had Phillies season tickets and he spit out his soup in shock,” Phillips said. “It turned out we had both been fans since we were 6 years old. He would be proud of how far we’ve come joining the Phillies and the ALS charity together.”

Phillips said her goal is simple: to raise enough money to help provide excellent patient care and help researchers discover more effective treatments and a cure. At this year’s Phestival, which raised $656,500, fans came from all over the state to support the Phillies and the fight against ALS. Stephanie Derr drove to the stadium the morning of the event from Reading to take part in the day’s “phestivities,” which included player autographs and pictures, auctions and raffles, games and the chance to throw in the bullpen.

“ALS is a terrible, debilitating disease,” Derr, who lost a friend to the disease five years ago, said. “Any work toward finding a cure is the best thing ever in my opinion.”

In addition to supportive fans, many Phillies employees volunteered their time to help ensure the event’s success. Many of these employees, such as Ray Duffy, a Phillies host since 2010, even had a personal stake in the Phestival’s purpose.

“My dad and my best friend both passed away from ALS, and I’ve seen the damage [the disease] can do in its later stages,” Duffy said. “My dad became like a baby and couldn’t really do anything for himself near the end. It was painful to see him that way after knowing him as such a strong role model.”

Duffy, who has volunteered at this event each year since joining the Phillies organization, continued by saying that, aside from supporting a great cause, he enjoys volunteering his time at the event because it’s yet another way he gets to meet and converse with fans. To him, seeing the community come together for a day of fun and for a cause so close to his heart is more than worthy of him time.