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Be a Part of Something Special

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Jenny Doan

"I've been thinking about you," it's a simple phrase, but one rarely heard unless you’re lucky enough to have Nick Cekola as a friend, then this phrase reminds you of him. Mamma (Dee) Cekola is the matriarch and glue that holds this family together, but Nick the oldest of the Cekola siblings who is developmentally disabled is definitely the person who invites and engages everyone into their family fold.

I’ve been working for the Cekola family at Imperial Beverage, nearly nine years now and I feel blessed to be in the fold and am reminded of its specialness everyday.

Countless times when asked by a stranger where I work, without a doubt their reply is, “I’m friends with the Cekolas’,” and then they go on to name one of the many cousins, aunts, uncles, or brothers. It’s amazing how everyone wants to be a part of something special and that’s what this family brings to the community of Kalamazoo.

When stories are shared of the good ole’ days at Cekola’s Pizza with Joe Sr. at the helm, you’ll enviably hear of his generosity and how he was always available to help others. His gift could be as simple as learning that a competitor was struggling with an oven before the lunchtime rush and with one phone call he would have a spare oven delivered, so his fellow restaurateur didn’t miss out on any business.

Joe Sr. was also a family man that loved his children and refused to have his oldest son, Nick live in a group home away from the family because of his special needs. “Our Mom and Dad had to make that decision in 1961, the financial burden of doing so is large, but the reward is so much greater,” said Larry Cekola (Nick’s youngest brother).

That principle was the beginning of the multi-generational legacy this family is creating.

With the passing of ‘Big Joe’, the Joseph A. Cekola Memorial Fund was established through the Kalamazoo Community Foundation. It was Joe's love for family, constant gift of giving, and desire to provide for the special needs of his son Nick, that inspired an annual fundraising event.

“We originally set this fund up after our father’s death to fill the hole of his philanthropy in the disabled community around Kalamazoo,” said Cekola. “We thought we could help a few families here and there as our dad did, but now it has turned into something larger than any of us ever envisioned. We are helping lots of families, some with substantial gifts around Kalamazoo to change their lives for the better.”

The mission of the fund is to provide financial assistance for families with permanently disabled children who desire to maintain the family unit by caring for the child in their home. Formed in 1994, the fund to date has raised just under one million dollars.

Attending the annual fundraiser knowing that you are making a difference to families with special needs children is like no other feeling in the world; I’ve gone for eight years and will never miss it. The Cekola family pays for the entire event including the food, wine, and entertainment ensuring that every dollar collected goes to the fund and stays local to the Kalamazoo area, which is not county specific. The money collected helps with a wide range of needs, from IPads for Autistic children to learn from, to full bathroom remodels, or wheelchair lifts for transportation needs.

At this event I’ve had the opportunity to hear a variety of benefactors speak and view photos of recipients and how their lives were impacted by the donations, it brings a special peace inside you and makes you feel like you were in the exact right place at the right time. I urge you to find something special in your life that will evoke this type of emotion or better yet….become part of the family fold.

If you know of a person or family that needs help in keeping a disabled child at home, please share information about the Joseph A. Cekola Memorial Fund or have them contact any community non-profits like The ARC Community Advocates for help. For more information on becoming part of something special contact the Kalamazoo Community Foundation about donations or Terry Goodman at Imperial. Then think about the wise words of Joe Sr. who believed that it was important to give till it hurt, then to give a little more!

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