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Party raises funds for children’s cancer charity

Mitch Kraeling’s Kids Need More Gala returns to Coral House

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“My son’s not here tonight, but he’s with me all the time,” an emotional Mitch Kraeling Sr. told the 300 people in attendance at the Coral House in Baldwin last Friday. They had come from across Long Island and Manhattan to raise money for children and families coping with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.

“It’s hard every year without my son. The money goes to a great cause,” Kraeling said after thanking everyone for coming out to show their support.

The fourth annual Mitch Kraeling Memorial Gala, dedicated to the memory of Mitchell Kraeling Jr., 22, who died of cancer in 2013, benefited Kids Need More, a local nonprofit organization. The event raised more than $75,000, organization representatives said.

The fundraiser has collected thousands of dollars, and helps to fund Camp Adventure, which is held every August and pairs trained volunteers with children with cancer and their siblings.

Kraeling, a Rockville Centre resident, Freeport native and manager at Island Electric Corp., and his family are primary supporters of the program. He and his daughter, Kim, organize annual fundraisers, including the gala in memory of Mitchell Jr., who died of a rare pediatric bone cancer.

Mitchell Jr. suffered from a disease called Ewing’s sarcoma, an extremely rare cancer that grows in the bones or the soft tissue around them, such as cartilage or the nerves. Ewing’s sarcoma affects about 200 children and young adults annually in the United States, according to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, and shows up slightly more often in males.

Kraeling’s son was being treated at Stony Brook University Hospital when Kraeling met Melissa Firmes, co-founder and executive director of Kids Need More, and learned about the organization’s efforts.

“I think it’s so amazing when someone experiences such a tragedy as the loss of a child and then turns it into something to help others,” Assemblywoman Judy Griffin, who represents Baldwin, said at the gala. “I’m amazed and impressed when people suffer so much and take that suffering and help other people.”

Those who attended were encouraged to dress according to this year’s theme, which was Hollywood Red Carpet. Miniature statuettes resembling Oscar awards adorned the tables and life-size ones stood near the dance floor. Every year, residents from Baldwin, Freeport and Rockville Centre attend the party and support the cause.

This year, Kraeling honored Kathy Birch, who lost her 12-year-old son, Joseph Hoehn, who suffered from a heart condition, four years ago. “It means so much to me and my family to give back to other sick children,” Birch said through tears. “It’s how my family and I have been surviving.”

She said her son taught her never to give up.

“He would always smile and wave goodbye to me as they took him off to surgery,” she said. “Joseph was the happiest kid, and he never complained, despite all he had to endure.”

Firmes also introduced Sharima Williams, a Freeport resident diagnosed with lupus who is seeking a kidney donor. Williams explained that her kidneys became compromised after she gave birth to her son in 2012 — and at that point she broke down crying. Her son, Jordan, approached her and hugged her as a wave of “awws” washed over the crowd.

“This is the heart of what we’re all about,” Firmes said. “We need to get the word out about this. I had a donor that helped save my life, and I want to be able to pass that forward.”

Firmes then introduced a group of children and teens, known as ambassadors, who survived cancer and other life-threatening illnesses and helped raise thousands of dollars for the organization. They were met by thunderous applause as they entered the room on the long red carpet.

For more information or to contribute to Kids Need More, visit kidsneedmore.org, call (631) 608-3135 or email info@kidsneedmore.org.