WESTPORT, Conn. -- About 20 years ago, Westport resident Al DiGuido's life was changed at a New York Giants football fundraising dinner where a number of women were introduced.
"They spoke about their children who were dying of cancer and about all the money raised that night to help their family with clothing and lodging.
"I thought to myself, 'Why should mothers be begging strangers for lodging and food for their kids?'
"At that moment, I was determined to do whatever I could do to help these kids and their families," said DiGuido, 60, a father of three and grandfather of six.
In 2004, DiGuido founded Al’s Angels, a nonprofit whose mission is to provide moments of joy and comfort to families that are challenged by childhood cancer, rare blood diseases, AIDS, domestic violence and financial hardship.
Everyone at Al's Angels volunteers their time.
To date, tens of thousands of children and their families have benefited over from Al's Angels, according to DiGuido, who is CEO and founder of Zeta Interactive, a full-service interactive marketing company based in New York City. He is also owner of Saugatuck Sweets, which has locations in Westport and Fairfield.
Last year, through its Toy Drive, Al's Angels helped close to 8,000 children in oncology and cancer wards in Tri-State area hospitals. "We dress up and present the gifts directly to the kids," DiGuido said. "We provide all the gifts."
He said while it can get time consuming, "when you are on a mission to help people in tremendous need, no matter how you are, you will find the time to do it," he said.
"This has become our life's work," he said.
One of the many children Al's Angels has helped is Ethan Takacs of Fairfield, who has spinal muscular atrophy. The van the family was using didn't accommodate his wheelchair. In 45 days, Al's Angels raised $70,000 to buy the Takacs family their new van.
Al's Angels has also helped 15-year-old Anthony Katz of Monroe, who like Ethan, also has muscular atrophy. Anthony needs an operation on Nov. 28 for his scoliosis. In addition, his family's van needs to be properly fitted to fit Anthony and his wheelchair. "Within 15 days, we raised over $60,000 with 400 donors," DiGuido said.
To spread the word, whenever a family needs assistance, Al's Angels accesses its database of over 7,000 people and sends out an email. In addition, DiGuido puts up signage at his own business also relies upon social media.
DeGuido said the vast majority of people who donate through Al's Angels are not wealthy.
"Donations don't have to be big," he explained. "Any amount helps. $25 can buy a a gift for a child for the holidays and $100 feeds a family of four for the holidays"
DiGuido feels what makes Al's Angels unique is while anybody can write a check, not everyone gets to directly see where their money goes.
"At Al's Angels, you can actually assemble meals, wrap gifts or even be there to deliver and present everything to the person who is receiving it," he said.
DiGuido said he is very impressed with how many young people -- both children and teens -- have become involved with Al's Angels. "It is a teaching moment for these kids," he said. "There is a reverence and a dignity to what we are doing."
In addition DiGuido said he makes sure everyone who is preparing something to be given out, such as filling meal bins, is mindful of how they do it. "We teach them to give each bin more thought than just randomly throwing the items into it," he said. "We are dispensing love. We want the bins to reflect all the pride we take in what we do."
This year, Al's Angels will provide over 3,200 families with Thanksgiving, Christmas and Hanukah meals. Also, Al's Angels' goal is to collect and distribute toys to over 10,000 children and families for the holiday season.
From Nov.10 to Dec. 15, Al's Angels is organizing a Holiday Toy Drive. Contact DiGuido to arrange pick up of collection boxes and signage.