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Fundraiser for Weises’ labor of love draws a crowd

Updated: 2013-06-22T03:40:50Z

By RUSTIN DODD

The Kansas City Star

— For nearly 10 years, Charlie and Maura Weis had thought about this day. They would go to South Bend, Ind., drop their daughter, Hannah, off at her new home, and brace for tears.

For 10 years, they had planned. Maybe, Maura said, it would feel like they were dropping her off at college. One could hope. But in the end, they knew it would be different.

“That weekend … I was really a basket case,” Maura said.

They had planned for this, ever since that day on the beach in South Carolina, when Maura had challenged Charlie with a simple message.

“You could have died,” Maura said, “And we would have never helped anybody but ourselves.”

Just a few months earlier, in 2002, Weis had nearly died after complications from gastric bypass surgery. Meanwhile, Hannah was afflicted with a rare epilepsy syndrome — Electrical Status Epilepticus of slow wave sleep. She was severely developmentally delayed. And on that day in South Carolina, Charlie and Maura began to think about Hannah’s future, what she would do when she no longer could go to school.

“In almost every school district, you can stay in school until your 22nd birthday,” Charlie said, “But there’s nothing after that. If you’re not job-capable, there’s absolutely nothing after that.”

More than 10 years later, the result of that conversation is Hannah & Friends, a foundation that raises money and awareness for people with special needs. And June 8, Charlie and Maura took Hannah to the foundation’s facility in South Bend, which houses 12 full-time residents with “different abilities” and hosts day camps and other events for children with special needs.

Over the past 10 years, the Weises helped build the facility from the ground up, raising millions in the process.

On Friday night, at Hannah & Friends’ annual summer fundraiser at Prairie Band Casino, Maura and Charlie reflected on those 10 years. Weis and a few hundred of his closest friends, including former Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn, gathered for a benefit dinner in advance of a golf tournament Saturday. Comedian Rob Riggle was there. So was Weis’ good friend Mike Golic, an ESPN radio personality.

“I think the biggest thing is just the overall mission that they have,” said Quinn, who has attended the annual event for years. “And just knowing Coach Weis, and the passion that he has to take care of Hannah ... and knowing that there’s other families out there that have similar situations.”

In the short-term, Charlie said, the family is transitioning to life with Hannah in South Bend, where her room is painted with her favorite cartoons. As the coach prepares to begin his second season as the head football coach at Kansas, Maura will make the move full-time to Lawrence, after having stayed in Florida with Hannah for the past year.

All along, the plan was for Hannah to move to the organization’s home base when she turned 18. And Friday was another step in the foundation’s mission.

In the early days, Hannah & Friends had small goals. Progress meant buying a bicycle for a child with special needs or providing a bed to a kid who had never had his own.

“I thought, ‘God, if we could just raise $100,000 a year,’” Charlie said. “If we could just do that. We’ve raised closer to $10 million over our time. It’s not $10 million, but it’s between $5 and $10 million we’ve raised. The endowment alone is $5 million.

In the end, Maura said, they just wanted to raise awareness. There are still families out there still working through the exhausting joy of raising a child with special needs. And in early June, when the Weis family dropped Hannah off at her new home, Maura thought of them.

“There’s so many things that go on in lives of families that have people with different abilities,” Maura says. “It’s harder for them. To give them a little something, it really means a lot for them.”

To reach Rustin Dodd, send email to rdodd@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/rustindodd.

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