After being paralyzed in a motor-vehicle accident at the age of 21, Ricky Palermo, 58, could be bitter.
Yet, he considers himself blessed.
One reason is the support team of family and friends who not only help him day to day, but the dedicated committee members who have volunteered to make the annual Ricky Palermo Spinal Injury Golf Tournament a success.
The tournament scheduled Aug. 4 will be the 22nd, and Palermo hopes it won’t be the last.
He fears as people age and lives get harder, the people who have helped him all these years won’t be able to keep the pace. He cites as an example losing his brother-in-law Joe last year.
The thought of his benefit tournament dying out is almost unbearable. In its 21 years, the tournament has raised more than $1.2 million for spinal injury research.
Annually, money from the golf tournament is donated to four causes – the Emergency Room at United Memorial Medical Center, where Palermo was treated; Strong Memorial Hospital’s Spinal Unit; the Batavia YMCA, where Palermo regularly exercises on a Functional Electrical Stimulation bike; and the Miami Project in Miami, where doctors and research scientists are working to find a cure for spinal injuries.
Palermo was one of the first six patients to take part in the Miami Project after it was established in 1985, just four years after his accident.
A key figure in founding the Miami Project was NFL Hall of Fame linebacker Nick Buoniconti, whose son Marc had been injured playing football. The Buoniconti family vowed that progress in spinal injury research would not be slowed because of lack of funds. To date, their foundation has raised one-half billion dollars.
One of their fundraisers is the Great Sports Legends’ Dinner in New York City, to which Palermo is sent tickets every year.
“I am so blessed that they think of me,” Palermo said.
Another reason the Miami Project is so special to Palermo is because his niece, Batavia native Dr. Annie Palermo, has just been hired there. One of the studies he will be involved in will be led by Annie.
The first study he participated in proved to doctors that someone with a spinal cord injury could stay in shape with proper exercise. Several times a week, Palermo goes to the YMCA, where he rides the Functional Electrical Stimulation bike, which his golf tournament helped fund.
Palermo hopes the golf tournament will continue to be a success. In the past, golfers have come from eight different states. Many plan their vacations around the event, he said.
The first year they set a goal of $5,000, but actually raised $11,500.
“That’s when we knew we had to try again,” Palermo said.
Last year’s tournament raised $74,000. They have had as many as 224 golfers participate in one year.
“We’ve met so many caring, wonderful people,” Palermo said. “I consider myself lucky.”
Terry Hills, where the tournament takes place, has been so good to them, Palermo said. While the scheduled tee-off isn’t until 11 a.m., some start at daybreak to get everyone in.
Genesee Community College is also a big supporter, hosting the dinner, auction and show in the evening.
Cost for lunch, golf, and dinner is $120 per person. Just hors d'oeuvres, dinner and the show is $50.
The show will include a video and a presentation by two doctors from the Miami Project. The video will feature footage shot of Palermo when he was in Miami.
There will also be a live and silent auction and raffles.
Donations of cash, prize items, and auction items are welcome.
To register to golf or for information on making a donation, contact Palermo at (585) 739-8522.
Photo (by Howard Owens): Ricky Palermo with his cousin John Curtiss.