If you know anything about Liz Veronda, you know she throws a great party – like, for instance, there was that retro- ’70s birthday bash she put together for her husband a few years back, complete with a mirror ball, sand art, Farrah Fawcett posters, and other disco relics galore. And don’t forget those spontaneous late-night socials during the Alpha-1 Association’s education conference in Chicago, when everyone seemed to find their way to Veronda’s room for a few laughs and lots of talk. She can whip up a good time faster than Martha Stewart can toss a plate of pesto.
But nothing really compares with the gala she put on last year in her hometown of Coal City, Ill., to benefit the Alpha-1 Foundation. Her “Rockin’ to the ’50s” dinner dance drew more than 200 people and raised over $10,000—all of which went toward supporting the mission of the Foundation of providing the leadership and resources that will result in increased research, improved health, worldwide detection and a cure for Alpha-1. Partygoers feasted on great food, danced the night away to a live rock ’n roll band, and furiously tried to out-bid one another in a silent auction for items donated by local businesses. The big blowout lit up an otherwise bleak November weekend for everybody who went.
Best of all, Veronda had so much fun organizing the event that her enthusiasm proved contagious. “A lot of Alphas feel uncomfortable asking people for donations,” she says. “Look, it’s not scary at all. Basically I threw a party, invited the whole town, charged people $20 to get in, and then asked them for more money once they got there. And at the end of the night they thanked me! What’s so scary about that? They all had a blast. And it directly helped the Alpha community.”
Blessing in Disguise
Veronda has committed herself to the Alpha-1 cause since her diagnosis at age 34. “My husband noticed something was wrong, but I thought I was just out of shape,” she recalls. “He told me to go to a specialist. When I eventually saw a pulmonologist, he told me, ‘You have the lungs of a 70-year-old man who has been smoking two packs a day since he was a teenager.’” Two years later, she went on disability from her career in industrial sales.
She began working as an AlphaNet coordinator in Illinois soon afterward. With her sales background, she has no trouble bringing the message of early Alpha-1 detection and treatment to doctors, pulmonary rehab patients, and other groups. “I tell people to get tested early,” she says. “My grandmother had emphysema at age 50 and is probably an Alpha, although she has never been diagnosed. I was a smoker, and my life would’ve been different had I known about Alpha-1 earlier.”
Not that the disorder dampens Veronda’s natural exuberance. In fact, Alpha-1 has let her savor good friends and good times all the more. “This disease is actually a blessing,” Veronda confides. “I learned that you don’t sweat the small stuff. I enjoy life so much more.”
Why Not Alpha-1?
That unbridled enjoyment for life at least partly explains her zest for throwing parties. Veronda got the inspiration for her fundraiser after serving as captain of Team Alpha for the American Lung Association’s Illinois bike trek. Although the team raised over $40,000 for the cause, she thought, “Why not do something that benefits the Alpha-1 Foundation directly? I love to throw parties, and I especially love theme parties. Why not throw a ’50s theme dinner-dance?” She rented a hall and enlisted about 20 friends to help organize the event.
To sweeten the deal, Veronda and her friends planned a silent auction with items donated by local businesses. “We got tons of stuff—a cruise, a guided four-man goose hunt, a hot air balloon ride, gift baskets, Bulls tickets, an autographed puck from the Black Hawks,” she says. “We went to every single Chicago sports team, and every one gave us something to auction off.”
Corporate donors’ generosity extended even to the party favors. Veronda contacted the Connecticut-based Pez candy company, which shipped dozens of classic flip-top dispensers for table decorations. They joined Necco wafers, fuzzy dice, hula-hoops, a kiosk of 45-rpm records, and period posters to lend a retro look. And if you needed to re-sculpt your ducktail in the men’s room between dances, there were bottles of Vitalis handy on the counter. “Paying attention to the little details really makes it fun,” says Veronda.
On the big night, searchlights stabbed the sky outside and made the event seem like a Hollywood premiere. (Veronda rented them just for the occasion.) Guys and gals of all ages came ready to rock, dressed in rolled-up blue jeans, leather jackets, poodle skirts, and saddle shoes. Nick Willett (Veronda’s cousin) and his band kept the joint jumpin’ with tunes by Elvis, Roy Orbison, and Dion. By the end of the evening, Veronda had raised thousands of dollars for the Alpha-1 Foundation and everyone left with a smile.
With the success of her ’50s fundraiser behind her, the consummate party planner is already thinking of her next big bash. “You know, I’ve always wanted to rent out an old movie theater and show Westerns,” Veronda muses. “We could hire a stagecoach to give people rides outside. And a cowboy doing rope tricks! I just love Rio Bravo, with John Wayne and Dean Martin. Those guys are classic cool….”
As her voice trails off, you can practically smell the popcorn.
Article first published in Alpha-1 Magazine in Spring 2005