From Patient to Patron: How Giving Back through Philanthropy Comes Full Circle

Jenni O'NeilJenni O’Neil never expected to become a connoisseur of rare bourbons. But amid the COVID-19 pandemic, she and a group of friends were trying to figure out how to raise funds for Mary Bird Perkins without in-person events. After all, Jenni has fundraising in her blood, having worked for the Cancer Center’s Development team in 2010.

“As we were brainstorming, a friend mentioned her husband had started participating in online bourbon raffles for exclusive and hard-to-find bottles,” Jenni explains.

Quickly, a lightbulb went off in her head.

“I thought, ‘this can’t be that hard. I’m going to do this.’”

Jenni now admits it wasn’t as easy to track down an impressive selection of rare bottles that collectors and novices alike were willing to part with. But one large donation spurred others to pitch in.

“Bottles started coming in left and right,” Jenni explains. “That one donation kicked off a crazy chain of events. We were blessed in many ways.”

The raffle’s inaugural draw, which included more than 100 bottles, raised $75,000.

“No one could believe it,” Jenni says. “There wasn’t any explanation other than people got behind us and knew what this money was going towards.”

100 percent of proceeds from the raffle benefit patients and services on the Northshore, furthering Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center’s mission to improve survivorship and lessen the burden of cancer.

“This money goes to your friends, your neighbors, and your coworkers.”

The next year, in 2022, the raffle brought in more than $100,000, thanks to community ticket sales and the generosity of local partners like Jani King, the event’s title sponsor, who Jenni credits with doing a lot of the behind-the-scenes legwork for the raffle.

2023 Bourbon Raffle Check Presentation
2023 Bourbon Raffle Check Presentation

The 2023 raffle, featuring more than 130 bottles of various first-class bourbons up for grabs, was held in April and raised $103,500.

“Hearing people’s stories has been amazing,” Jenni says. “This fundraiser has led to so many unexpected connections between the Cancer Center and members of our community and has allowed us to raise funds to give people what they need after a cancer diagnosis – everything from transportation assistance to nutritional services.

Danielle Mack, chief development officer, Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center; Jenni O'Neil
(l-r) Danielle Mack, chief development officer, Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center; Jenni O’Neil

Well before she could differentiate distilleries, Jenni came to know the Cancer Center in a different way, beyond being a former team member. In 2014, at just 33, she was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. With a daughter entering PreK-5 and a son in 5th grade, she acknowledges the initial fear she felt. But very quickly she and her husband found a sense of resolve.

“We kind of got into fight mode,” she recalls.

Jenni received initial scans at the Cancer Center’s Hammond location before going through treatment at Mary Bird Perkins in Covington. With the support of her medical oncologist, Jay Saux, M.D., and Mike Miranda, cancer center administrator, Northshore region, she quickly began her treatment plan, which consisted of six initial rounds of chemotherapy and another year of additional chemo.

By the end of 2015, Jenni was declared cancer free.

“Mary Bird was special to me before, but being on the receiving end of things, it has become an even bigger blessing.”

For Jenni, raising funds for local cancer care services is a passion project. As early as she can recall, her family was holding drives and fundraisers for cancer organizations in honor of her grandfather who passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2000. Her dedication has only grown with her involvement with Mary Bird Perkins, from team member to patient. Her experience undergoing treatment has given her a new perspective.

“My family was blessed to be financially stable when I was diagnosed,” Jenni explains. “But, there are people out there fighting the battle of their lives who don’t know how they are going to get their needs met. Through this raffle, we are removing hurdles and barriers to care. When it comes down to it, I don’t want anyone to struggle to get to survivorship.”

Having already raised a toast to the raffle’s 2023 success, Jenni is already looking forward to “growing the bourbon raffle family” in 2024.

“Being competitive by nature, it would be amazing to raise $150,000 next year.”