Life at the Gerson Institute is always exciting, but last Thursday was especially exciting, since Phil Collen, the lead guitarist for Def Leppard, came for lunch. Actually, it was a little more than lunch. Collen came to our office yesterday with guitar maker Jake Willoughby to present the Institute with a $20,000 donation and give us a private acoustic performance.
All in all, not your average day at the office!
How “Wings” Was Born
We were first contacted by Melissa Cordero, Collen’s publicist, in September during Def Leppard’s Rock of Ages Tour. Melissa explained that in January of 2012, Jake Willoughby, a guitar maker and musician, approached Phil about the idea of auctioning off a guitar to raise awareness about pancreatic cancer. Jake had recently lost his mother Connie Rae Alsip Willoughby to pancreatic cancer after a courageous thirteen month battle. Sadly, Phil’s own father, Kenneth Frank Collen, had passed away from pancreatic cancer two years before. Jake built the guitar, and artist Mike Learn, whose aunt Gladys and cousin Ray Learn were also lost to this terrible disease, painted the guitar. Thus, “Wings” was born.
Phil played Wings throughout the American tour and it was auctioned on eBay at the tour’s end. When the original $20,000 bid turned out to be fraudulent – bringing intense bad karma on someone out there! – Phil was so committed to giving the $20,000 that he decided to make up the difference himself! Wings ended up finding the perfect home with the “true” high bidder, New Zealand businessman Murray Bolton, who came to California to meet Phil Collen and receive Wings. Phil said,
“Meeting Murray and handing over Wings was bittersweet. I really grew to love that guitar but am so happy that it’s going to a great home and the money will help so many more people.”
A Gift in Honor of Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month
Although Wings was auctioned off back in September, Collen and Willoughby wanted to wait until November to present Gerson with the donation so that the presentation would coincide with Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month.
Pancreatic cancer is the fourth-most common cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. Pancreatic cancer is a particularly lethal form of cancer even when detected in the initial stages, and it is rarely detected early. The most common symptoms – unexplained weight loss, abdominal pain and jaundice – are associated with a variety of other conditions. The overall 5-year relative survival rate from 2002-2008 for individuals in the US diagnosed with pancreatic cancer was 5.8%.
For Jake, it was especially important that this donation raise awareness about pancreatic cancer, the disease to which he lost his mother Connie.
Not Just Another Day at the Institute
So what is it like to be presented with a donation from a rock star? A lot of fun! This is the first time I have received a donation from a rock star, and we were lucky enough to have Phil Collen. Phil is a longtime vegetarian, and more recently transitioned to veganism. He is passionate about health and fitness, and even brings his juicer with him on tour!
As soon as we started working with Melissa it became clear that for both Phil and Jake the auction of Wings had very little to do with publicity and a whole lot to do with a passionate desire to raise awareness about pancreatic cancer, the importance of nutrition and healthy lifestyle, and supporting the Gerson Institute. As Phil told one reporter,
“So many times in the past, we’ve signed guitars for charity and had no connection with them whatsoever. This is the first time I’ve been involved 100 percent.”
So it didn’t seem that strange to suggest that since they were coming to the Institute to make a formal presentation of the donation that they join us beforehand for a Gerson lunch.
So last week, Phil and Helen Collen came to the Institute for lunch, along with Jake and Tisha Willoughby, and Debbie Blackwell-Cook, Helen’s godmother. Melissa Dragich, who I had the pleasure to work with during the auction, and Chris Epting, who writes for Spinner also joined us.
We were all a little nervous. OK, I was very nervous. Would the media show up? Would they like the food and the arrangements? Had I really prepared enough to welcome a rock star?! Would he make any difficult demands, à la Van Halen’s legendary “no brown M&M’s” tour rider? (Kidding, of course–candy was not on the menu!)
As soon as our guests arrived, however, I realized that my fretting was entirely unnecessary–Phil and our other guests could not have been more kind or gracious. I could relax and focus on the incredible work that brought us together, because everything was going to be great.
Sharing a Gerson Meal
All our guests were obviously excited to be at Gerson and focused on talking about alternative health and cancer prevention. The Institute’s chefs Jen and Eric created a beautiful meal for our guests, a perfect introduction to Gerson food – with the help of many dedicated volunteers! (Additional thanks go out to the several volunteers who helped me move furniture to get ready for the event – and washed dishes afterwards!) Our guests even had the chance to learn about the Therapy from Charlotte Gerson herself, who was able to join us for the afternoon, and chatted with our guests at the lunch table.
After lunch we presented Phil and Jake with some educational gifts, so that they could continue learning about the Gerson Therapy. We also sent gifts back for Mike Learn who wasn’t able to join us, and for Jeni Cook, a raw chef married to Manraze/former Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook, who originally introduced Phil to the Gerson Therapy. After talking with Charlotte during lunch, Debbie had become so interested in Gerson that we decided she needed some educational materials as well. Then she decided she wanted to get more for a friend as well!
Honoring Loved Ones Lost to Pancreatic Cancer
After lunch, we took a moment to light candles in memory of the lives of Kenneth Frank Collen, Connie Rae Alsip-Willoughby, and Gladys and Ray Learn.
As the Institute’s Development Coordinator, I am deeply touched each time someone makes a donation to our organization in honor of a loved one. It reminds me of the great faith that people place in us and renews my energy and commitment to work as a faithful steward of that trust. As Jake told me,
“She wasn’t just my mother. She was my best friend. I don’t know if she would have done Gerson, but I would have liked for her to have known that there were other options. I saw how she suffered. I don’t think anyone should have to suffer like that.”
An Unexpected Opportunity to Help a Young Def Leppard Fan
One of the best parts of the day for me was that we got an unexpected chance to help a local family. NBC posted about Phil’s donation on their music blog Sound Diego a week before the event, and I received a call from the grandmother of an eleven-year-old Def Leppard fan asking if the event was open to the public. I explained that it wasn’t, but as we talked I learned that her grandson had juvenile-onset rheumatoid arthritis and was taking interferon. I asked for her number and said I’d see if it were possible.
It seemed like an excellent opportunity to at least open the door to a new opportunity in one young man’s life. I called Melissa to make sure that would be alright and she said Phil would be delighted. Phil brought the young man a tote bag full of Def Leppard gear, got him tickets to one of their upcoming shows in Vegas and spent several minutes talking with him and his father. Charlotte also spent a long time talking with the boy and his father, explaining the possibilities of natural healing, and how it has helped others with rheumatoid arthritis. By the end of the day, they were willing to at least consider this new option.
Although the whole day was great, seeing the direct impact of the event – this family that might never have known about Gerson except for the fact that their favorite rock star came to our office – was the most incredible part of the whole day.
Lights, Camera, Action!
Next came the “official” event, and the building quickly filled with reporters and camera crews, with Phil and Charlotte giving back-to-back interviews. We had spots on the local ABC, CBS, and FOX affiliates, as well as a local cable station CUSI TV and reporters from local papers. It was so exciting to see the Institute on the local news. Check out the piece that aired on Channel 8!
However, the best part was having reporters meet our volunteers and staff, and watching them speak to our guests. You can tell when people are genuine – and our belief in the power of nutrition and holistic medicine can’t be missed.
Phil Collen and Jake Willoughby presented the donation to our Executive Director Anita Wilson, our founder Charlotte Gerson, and our newest board member Rachel Hiner. As Charlotte said to them,
“This is very exciting and moving. We’ll use it well. People are being helped and are being returned to productive lives. Thank you very much.”
After Phil and Jake told the story of Wing for the cameras, came my other favorite moment. (Come to think of it, I had several favorite moments that day!)
Phil gave an acoustic performance of several songs, starting with “Hysteria.” We also heard Def Leppard’s best-known anthem “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and Debbie Blackwell Cook joined Phil for a few other songs, including “Muddy Water Blues” and a rousing rendition of Bob Marley’s “Lively Up Yourself.” Watch the whole performance here.
After the performance, the cameras rushed back to edit footage for the 5 o’clock news, and Phil and Jake joined staff and volunteers to visit and take photos. Our Assistant Chef Eric gave Phil a juicing lesson on our Norwalk.
Afterwards, the two of them chatted, and Eric invited Phil to come back and volunteer in the kitchen! Our kitchen is a haven for music buffs, so Eric assured Phil that he would fit right in with the kitchen crew.
Our chefs are happy to cook you a delicious meal, and then, even if you are a huge rock star, they’ll invite you back and put you to right to work, preparing food that is not only tasty, but also healing.
That’s what makes Gerson so special. We welcome everyone, and we all work together to share a vital and important message: that our food is our medicine.
About the Author
Mikhaela Payden-Travers is the Gerson Institute’s Development Coordinator, managing the Institute’s various fundraising programs. A grassroots fundraiser with experience working for small organizations in the United States, Guatemala and Mexico, Mikhaela joined the Institute in the summer of 2009.
She is currently enrolled in the Nonprofit Management Masters program at the University of San Diego, but when she’s not at school or at the Institute, she enjoys running, reading Umberto Eco and rescuing Tijuana street dogs.
Photos by Kayla Courtney
(click thumbnail images to enlarge)