In its fifth year as a nonprofit organization, Our Sunflower Friends of Ellis County continues to serve people facing a cancer diagnosis or other catastrophic health issue, and who also have significant medical bills.

Sunflower Friends president Vicki Grady recently spoke with the Sun, sharing the organization’s mission, whom it serves and how the community can become involved. 

The idea for the organization came about when Grady was doing a Bible study at her church. Having seen what her mother and grandmother underwent with their battles with cancer and also being aware of a local teenager, Brooke Foster, who was fighting her own battle with osteosarcoma, Grady said she was called to action.

“It felt like God was telling me to do something to help people,” she said. “He kept laying it heavy on my heart, so me and two other ladies pulled something together.”

That initial effort saw more than $14,000 raised, with the assistance going to Foster as the group’s first recipient. With the desire to continue working together to help others, Sunflower Friends formed itself as a 501(c)3 and has raised as much as $50,000 in a year since, with any given year’s proceeds used to help from two to four recipients. 

Grady, who serves as Sunflower Friend’s president, said the board intends to continue growing what the organization does. 

“It’s definitely a labor of love and it’s also had some of the biggest heartbreaks and pressure,” she said. “There are so many that are worthy of support.”

The nomination process

People who have been designated as a Sunflower Friends have two aspects in common: They have a cancer or other serious medical diagnosis – and they also have more than $100,000 in medical expenses. The nomination process itself is informal, with people typically nominated for assistance by their friends, family members or churches. People also may self-nominate themselves. All requests for assistance are presented to the nonprofit’s board at its annual fall meeting for consideration as the next year’s recipients.  

It’s an informal nomination process and Grady encourages people to apply, with nominations taken after the fall fundraiser is held in October.

“If you’re in need, please reach out to us,” she said. “We’ve been blessed in that everybody who’s applied, we’ve been able to provide some assistance. It’s been one of our goals to make the process as easy as possible and not full of red tape.”

Fundraising opportunities

There are several ways in which the community can support Sunflower Friends, including participating in its fundraisers, whether through sponsorships, donations, purchasing a raffle ticket or volunteering. The nonprofit’s two big fundraisers are its late spring golf tournament and its fall casino night, which is slated for Saturday, Oct. 12, this year.

What makes Sunflower Friends work is the community’s ongoing support, for which Grady and the board extend their deepest appreciation. Donations can be made via PayPal on the organization’s website or by contacting Grady.

This year will be the first year Sunflower Friends will participate in the North Texas Day of Giving, which takes place in September as a day to raise awareness for nonprofits across the Metroplex.

“We’re looking for a corporation that would do a match,” she said, noting that businesses interested in helping in this manner should contact her.

Board members work diligently to raise awareness about what Sunflower Friends does. You’ll find them staffing a booth at events like Vintage Market Days, the Ellis County Youth Expo and Rodeo and Red Oak’s Heritage Days, among others. And they’re always on the lookout for more ways to spread the word, she said.

They’ve already begun selling tickets for the group’s annual raffle, which this year is offering a first prize of a Ranger Polaris, a second prize of a trip to Rome, Italy, or Jamaica and a third prize of a rifle. Only 10,000 tickets are being sold at $5 each or five for $20. The drawing will be held at the casino night.

“You don’t have to be present to win,” Grady said, although she does encourage people to attend the casino night, which she describes as “lots of fun” and held at the Ellis County Expo Center.

During the day, that Saturday, Oct. 12, the 11 a.m.-3 p.m. time frame is “all about the kids,” she said, noting a plethora of children’s activities are staged along with food. The adults then can enjoy themselves during the evening’s casino night, which features a meal by Pit Stop BBQ and music by the Midtown Playboys, along with a wide selection of casino games.

Single tickets are $30 each, with a table of eight available for $200. Each ticket includes 500 casino chips with buy-ins available for more. Beer and wine are provided, with people also able to BYOB. A “heads or tails” competition also will be held for a great prize, she said, noting additional buy-ins are available for it, also. Last year’s prize was an extensive selection of top shelf whiskeys and other alcoholic beverages.

Grady also feels blessed to have the support of KBEC 1390 AM/99.1 FM, which is throwing its second annual parking lot benefit for Sunflower Friends from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 3. 

“There will be bounce houses, the Blue Heelers live band that plays old time and classic rock and roll, a dunking booth, a paint the pony activity, MyTeeSweet Snow Cones, concessions and our raffle tickets for sale,” Grady said. “We really want people to stop by and see what we do and enjoy themselves.”

Why give

Grady appreciates all of the community support given to Sunflower Friends and welcomes people to contact her for more information about how they can help the organization in its program of work. 

“Our Sunflower Friends helps those within our own backyard that need assistance,” she said, noting that the money isn’t intended to go toward paying the medical bills but rather to assist the recipient and his or her family with quality of life needs. Grady cited one example where a family used some of the funding to pay for counseling after their loved one passed away. With another recipient, the money provided a new roof for her home, along with interior work that allowed for use of a wheelchair. 

“We want the money used to help make the family whole and not just surviving,” she said.

This year, the board also set aside a sum of money that is being used to assist people with immediate needs who aren’t one of the year’s named recipients. This program provides a small grant of $250 to $500 that can go toward transportation, food or other immediate need in the event of a child being hospitalized due to an accident, as an example.

Moving forward, plans for the coming year include securing additional, experienced board members who can offer expertise as the organization works to take its operations to the next level. Grady encourages people who would like to serve to contact her to talk about the possibilities and opportunities.

“It can be hard,” she said. “But, by the grace of God, who gave me a heart, while it can be challenging and hard to do at times, I personally feel so connected to our recipients. It’s a blessing and an honor to help them through their difficult times.”

It’s her 14 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren that keep her grounded, she said. When she’s feeling the responsibilities of keeping Sunflower Friends going – it’s her “grands” that provide the encouragement, she said.

“They show me that this is worthwhile,” she said. “They tell me, ‘You can’t quit, Nene. You can’t quit.’ I’m very blessed to have not only the community support but also the support of my family to keep me going and to have the strength to go on.”

More information about Sunflower Friends can be found at its website, www.oursunflowerfriends.org, or on its social media, which includes Facebook and Twitter. Search for Our Sunflower Friends of Ellis County.

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