Category Archives: The JT Townsend Foundation

Where does a dream come from?

Where does a dream come from?

When a dream becomes a reality it is a humbling experience. Today I feel as if I am floating on a cloud of gratitude. For a year and a half we have built a pyramid stone by stone beginning with a meeting of minds to discuss an idea. We lured them to our home with a promise of pizzas from the wood burning oven, craft beer on draft and plenty of cabernet to get the conversations going. What resulted was far more than we could have ever imagined.

Tommy had always wanted to throw a golf tournament on the golf course that we have viewed every morning for over twenty four years and one of the most famous in professional golf, the TPC Stadium course at Sawgrass. With each think tank meeting a team was forged. Ideas came from everyone, contacts were contacted and the event began to take form. We set up a meeting with the appropriate TPC staff and received their blessing. We asked our long time friend if he would want to join us once again. He gave a positive response with no hesitation. Our legal expert and a JTTF board member set out to form the Funk-Zitiello Foundation a new non profit, our JTTF marketing team began to work on the creative for the event. A web site was developed and social media began to promulgate. A team of over 80 volunteers was assembled. We were on our way to organizing a first class event at a first class venue.

However, before I go any further there is an element of the process that must be revealed.

Where does a dream begin? How is it born and how does it grow like ripples on the water? This dream came from a place deep within Tommy and I. We believe that God tugged gently at our hearts. We know He is the reason for our team, for our creative and crazy plans and for success beyond our wildest imagination. But, then it became not just our dream, it became the quest for others who heard about it. We believe it was all God’s plan.

When we look back over time we can see His work behind the scenes. Not just the past few years, but for our entire lives. Why did we move to this place we call heaven on earth all those many years ago? Why was it the next home being built belonged to a striving pro golfer? Was all of this by chance? How about that hard working golfer pulling off a win at potentially the fifth major golf tournament on the PGA Tour calendar and it happened just months after a young high school senior suffered a near fatal spinal cord injury on the football field. How did he meet JT Townsend? How did Fred and Sharon Funk and his band of golf fans, the Funk’s Punks join together to rally a community to build that young man a home so his family could live under one roof? How did I survive a cancer that is statistically a death sentence within one year? You just can’t make this stuff up. God was and is always in control. And, His plans are perfect.

It was not an easy task putting this event together. It took a team and it took a lot of work and worry and so many conversations I can’t begin to count them. But, in another way it was simple really. All we had to do was tell our story. Those who have been touched by something so raw and devastating were caught hook, line and sinker, many had been touched by pancreas cancer or had seen the work of JT Townsend and his foundation helping others who found themselves in the same position as he was, disabled and with no hope of getting the things they needed.

When we began we had a budget that I felt was aggressive and maybe unattainable. But, I knew we had to make everyone on our team understand what we wanted to achieve. Just a few weeks before the event we were not even close to our number and I heard discouragement in Tommy’s voice. I assured him, this was not OUR event, the perfect people would be there and the perfect number would be achieved. We just needed to have faith and keep putting one foot in front of another. And we did by achieving not only that lofty budget, but going over it by almost twenty percent.

We were also concerned about holding the event during the rainy season in North Florida. The showers had appeared each day for a month, a nice drenching rain to water the flowers and keep the hot days humid and sustain our natural beauty. But, rain could potentially shut down an outdoor event. Again, I turned to my faith and declared the day would be perfect because this is His event not ours. And, it was a perfect morning with not a cloud in the sky as the JT Townsend Gospel Choir sang praises on the hill overlooking the golfers as they warmed up on the driving range.

The JT Townsend Memorial Gospel Choir

But, there was one more God wink that probably came from our beloved JT at near conclusion of the golf tournament. Fred Funk, who had never hit a hole-in-one on TPC Stadium Course’s most photographed and feared hole #17 did just that. Not only did he do it that day, he did it right when Tommy, his son and his father and his best friend were on the tee, a group of diehard golf fans who as Funk’s Punks had followed Fred for twenty five years of his career. Everyone could hear the cheers throughout the course and knew something wonderful had happened. And it did.

What has been confirmed to me is that when God is involved we just need to listen for his next instruction. We need to place our complete faith in Him and allow each piece to fall into place. He will never disappoint.

What is your dream waiting to come true? Do you possess the faith you need to make it a reality?

The crowd erupts as Fred hits a hole in one

“With God all things are possible” Mark 10:27

Judi Zitiello, Sunshine, Carmen Townsend, Tommy Zitiello, Precious Townsend

The sponsors who made this event possible. Thank you all

Champions for Hope

Champions for Hope

Judi and JT graduation copy

On a warm June day as I stood at the UNF Arena podium before approximately twelve hundred mourners, I felt a strange peace come over me. I had prayed I could get through the eulogy of a man who changed my life and the lives of my family. A man I love dearly. A man who had shown me my purpose.

At that time I felt my purpose was to carry on his legacy of fulfilling the mission of a foundation we built together by helping people who had been in his very situation, broken and afraid. On that day I could never imagine how that defining moment would explode into yet another purpose even more personal than this.

Just ten months later my husband and I sat on the sofa of my new doctors office. I had always been very healthy. Recently what I wrote off as advancing age; knees clicking, meniscus tears, indigestion all started creeping up on me. Years of walking, body sculpting classes, treadmills and ellipticals pounding my medium sized frame were starting to reveal a truth…I was aging. Confident the doctor would concur with our diagnosis, we smiled when she entered the room and asked me to take a seat on the examining table. She was pretty, about thirty something, so accomplished for her age. But her demeanor was serious. She began to explain the results of the sonogram she had ordered the day before as she turned to her computer screen she pointed to something in the middle of my torso. “You have a mass in the head of your pancreas.” she said. Tom jumped from the sofa to sit on the table beside me. “Your blood work and symptoms reveal it could be pancreatic cancer.” A tear trickled down her cheek as she stoically shared her findings leading to this conclusion. My immediate response, “Can you live without your pancreas?” I was unaware of what the pancreas did. Tom held me tightly as she explained, “Yes,you can, but you would live on insulin for the rest of your life.” She had made an appointment with a surgeon at the Mayo Clinic for the next day. We left her office in utter shock.

The rest of the week was filled with MRI’s, more blood work, conversations with our surgical team, visits to church and meetings with immediate family. I was on a fast decline. Just 11 days after my initial appointment I was on the operating table for a 9 and 1/2 hour Whipple surgery by one of the best pancreatic cancer surgeons in the world.

My treatment and recovery took more than one year. To this day I am affected by the resection of my entire digestive system. Chemo and radiation have turned my stomach muscles to mush as well as deterioration of my bones. I recently underwent 2 and 1/2 hour surgery to repair hernias that developed where drains and other incisions had been required.

But, I am here 26 months at this writing cancer free from a lethal cancer that has a less than 8% survival rate of five years. I am a miracle.

To endure a day like October 8th, 2004 for JT, the date of his near fatal spinal cord injury and April 29th, 2014, the date of my diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, is something I would not wish upon anyone.
But, a friend told me one day I would look back on this trial as a blessing. And, that has proven to be true.

That blessing is the revelation of purpose. To move forward with each day that God blesses us with. To take that most difficult situation and turn it into good. To show others that through faith you can conquer anything. Be the example, make others see the hope you glean from a relationship with the only one who truly matters, our savior Jesus Christ.

What was hope for JT? That he would walk again? That he would be able to play football again? That he would hold his wife and baby one day. Only JT knows the true answer to that question. But, he never questioned “why me”. He moved forward each day with a smile and purpose to use his life experience to help others.

What is hope for me? That I will survive this death sentence? That cancer will not steal me from the ones I love too soon? Deep in my soul I promise you I am fine with death. But, I am hopeful that others will see my peace and they will reach deep down too and use each and every day to fight to give others hope.

JT and I have a mutual friend, a friend who we love and loves us both right back. The 2005 Players Champion – pro golfer Fred Funk and his wife and children joined forces with my husband, rock and best friend Tommy Zitiello, to create an event that will be like none other. An event to be held on one of the most prestigious golf courses in the country, The Champions for Hope Golf Classic.

The inaugural Champions for Hope golf classic presented by the Funk-Zitiello Foundation, Inc. (501C3 IRS designation applied for) will be held Friday, June 16th,2017, Father’s Day weekend, a gala, concert and auction at the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse. Golf will commence on Saturday, June 17th on the famed Stadium course. There will be 25 foursomes and a fifth celebrity. The proceeds from this event will be paid to two First Coast causes, The JT Townsend Foundation, Inc. and to fund a grant to research pancreatic cancer.

We intend for this event to grow annually, to give hope to the families of those affected by both of these causes and in years to come other worthy causes.

To find out how you can become a champion for hope send your inquiry to info@championsforhopegolf.com.

God bless everyone, individuals and sponsors who have stepped up to join our team of champions for hope to help benefit these two deserving causes.

Champions for HOpe logo copy

The night before he passed…

The night before he passed…

Hi Res Logo

JT Townsend and I were scheduled to speak at the Westside Rotary Meeting at 11AM the next morning of the night he passed away. We spoke about the speech he was giving, the speech he had been working on for several weeks. It was to be his first five minute speech.

I assured him he had practiced the speech plenty of times and I would be there to take over if anything prevented him from proceeding. But I knew he would be able to do it on his own.

Of course, we were not able to attend that meeting and JT never was able to give that speech, but a few months after his passing, I was invited back to the Westside Rotary to speak, and of course, I shared JT’s wonderful words with everyone. There was not a dry eye in the room.

This is what JT had to say:

Hello, my name is JT Townsend.

The night of October 8, 2004 started like any other night for a typical high school football player. I attended Episcopal School of Jacksonville, and we were playing our main rival, Bishop Kenny High School, and were doing well. We had a great pre-game dinner, looked good during warm-ups, and took the field ready to win. Because the schools are only a mile apart, the stands were filled with students and parents. As one of the leaders of our defense, it was my job to rally our younger players and keep them in the game. I was the coach on the field, and although I was not the loudest or most hyper player, I led by example and hard work.

The tackle was just like hundreds of others I had made since I was ten years old: knees bent, head up, arms out. I don’t remember the hit. I heard that I turned blue actually laying there in the grass. For me to turn blue – that had to be a bad sign.

The ambulance took me to Wolfson’s Childrens’ Hospital here in Jacksonville where my neck was stabilized and I was given a halo – a circle of metal drilled into my skull that attached to my shoulders and immobilized my head. My C2 vertebra had been crushed in the accident, and I had no feeling below my neck. I then spent the next 4 months at Shands trauma center with some of the best doctors in the region. The only problem, however, was that the doctors and nurses kept telling me all of these things I would not be able to do – finish school, go to college, have a normal next 10 years. I knew then that I would have my doubters. I knew then I would prove them wrong. I knew then that I would overcome. I knew then that I would turn this setback into an opportunity.

I was fortunate to spend several weeks in rehab at the Shepard Center in Atlanta, a hospital that specializes in spinal cord injuries. Without the resources there I would not have been able to learn about the opportunities available to me such as my pacer that helped me breathe and my chair with the sip and blow straw to move around. Sure – I had my dark days. The days where I cried. The days where I wanted to join my friends and swim in the ocean. The days where I wanted to go shoot hoops in the driveway with my sisters. The days where I asked God why me? The amazing thing is that God answered. He wanted to use me as an instrument of healing and helping. I can do more from this chair than people think.

The community rallied behind me the whole way. Local high schools, especially Episcopal, kept my name front and center and made sure that I was not forgotten. The rest of the year went quickly – I was able to finish high school and enjoy my high school graduation with my family sitting on the front row.

I applied to and was admitted to UNF, where I enrolled in 2005. Obviously I was not the traditional college student! My college career began with a thud – the car would not start on the day I was supposed to begin classes. I had other roadblocks, both real and symbolic, along the way. I had to re-learn how to study. I had to ask others for help. For someone who was shy and quiet, this was tough! At UNF I learned about the power of teamwork, the power of community, and the power of joining together to support a common cause.

That’s when I started having the dream for the Foundation. For several years, though, I had been turning dreams into realities, doing things that others told me I would never do. So many people in our community are worse off than me. I knew I had to start giving back more to support the community that that supported me when I needed it most. In Luke, Chapter 12 Jesus says, “To whom much is given, much is required.” Because I had been given so much, I knew that God would require much of me.

About 3 years ago I started the JT Townsend Foundation, a non-profit group that awards grants to families with children who have severe developmental disabilities. This year, through God’s help, we were able to distribute about $85,000 to 35 different families in Jacksonville. The foundation has a nice buzz going in the city. We are hooked into the Players Championship, the Jags, and other events in town. We look to grow and keep helping others wherever the need arises.

Only with God’s grace can I keep going. Thank you and please look out for those who are less fortunate than you are.

Every day in life we are presented with choices. What we do with those choices determines who we are in life. I can’t change what happened to me but with the right choices I can change the lives of others. We all have a purpose in life and true success comes when we realize our purpose. I think the two most important days in our lives are the day we were born and the day we realize why we were born. I now have a vision and a purpose and with the grace of God I have strength, courage and determination. Thank you and God bless you and all those less fortunate than us.

Graduation Day - from UNF...April 2013

Graduation Day – form UNF…April 2013

Believe

Believe

When we started the foundation for J.T. we didn’t realize how deeply it would enrich our lives. We hoped it would be a way to fulfill J.T.’s dream of “paying it forward”, giving back to the community that was inspired to help the Townsend family when their lives were turned upside-down that fall Friday in 2004, the night Episcopal HS Football player J.T. Townsend took a near fatal hit on the field. We never realized how clearly God would provide confirmation it was all His plan.

When the inspiration came to me, He must have smiled. This Christmas I realized how long He had been preparing us. It was not by accident we moved from Tampa to Ponte Vedra Beach all those years ago….right next door to Fred Funk, the pro golfer who introduced Tommy and I to J.T. Or that we would form the Funk’s Punks and bring that group of supporters to help J.T.

We prayed for a mission and a vision for this foundation. He gave us the mission of helping children and adults living with disabilities on the First Coast, and to help with funding important spinal cord injury research.

We prayerfully prepared a rough draft of how to structure the foundation. This was the platform upon which we began and upon which we operate today.

And, we prayed God would give us the names of the people He would have in each Board position. It is now clear how He was also preparing the hearts of more than just Tommy and me.

Lynda Masulli, JT and Judi Z

Lynda Masulli, JT and Judi Z


The day of the Christmas Tree Tour at the Masulli’s I realized He had also been at work on Lynda and Rich. It was obvious He had taken their passionate hobby of collecting beautiful artesian Christmas ornaments,decorating their beautiful home with them then turned it into a way to fund the foundation. What might have appeared to some as an extravagant hobby, now is a true sense of giving. And, the Masulli’s want to continue this event annually and look for ways to make the event even more successful. They see God’s hand in this. They too are giving back. And the blessings they receive continue to multiply filling their hearts with thanksgiving and willingness to do more.

Scott and Kelly Winer are another couple who work diligently to help make our foundation a success. Scott is a CPA who has worked on other non-profits as Treasurer. He runs our books. Kelly, has a background in rehabilitation and health care. She uses this knowledge to help on the foundation “Giving” committee. Both have necessary skills to make this foundation run financially sound and to insure the clients receive what they need from a medical standpoint. It is not be accident they found themselves on the same path as we. In fact, I first met Kelly when she styled Lindsay’s wedding with Liza Chung, another Board member whom God strategically placed in front of me. Kelly often visits the homes of our clients and shares with us how the things we provide enrich the lives of all of the family members and of the appreciation they express.

Kelly also brought us a Physical Therapist, Eric Mason. Eric provides valuable insight for our approval process. Eric is able to determine if the equipment they are requesting will be medically beneficial for them and cost effective for us. He encourages his patients and other Physical Therapists who have patients with disabilities to apply with us for items their medical insurance denies.

Liza Chung comes to us with a vast background in event planning and has many local contacts. She is the perfect person to conduct a brainstorming session, using her creativity to determine the best way to put an event together. It is not by chance Liza and I met three years ago planning an event.

Lisa Craig, who joined our board recently has years of experience in the corporate world. As Public Relations Manager for Weight Watchers she knows how to put a story together and pitch it to the media. Those skills were utilized promoting this years Christmas Tree Tour. J.T. and I were on four local television channels promoting the event thanks to her hard work and contact list. I am happy to say, Lisa is also my very dearest friend and has literally walked with me throughout this entire journey. She has a passion for JT and others with disabilities and shares her talents to make their world a better place.

It is not by chance Lizzie Danner, also on our marketing committee, attended school with J.T.. Lizzie runs her own non-profit to raise funding for ALS research. She has an uncle who lives with the debilitating disease. Lizzie works tirelessly keeping our contact list up to date and preparing press releases and print collateral.

Every successful foundation today utilizes social media to get the word out about what we are doing and the events we hold to keep us funded. It is not by chance that Michael Lewis Jr. grew up living near Fred Funk and attended Episcopal with J.T. Michael’s expertise is in the field of social media and works hard to develop and maintain our web site, Facebook pages and Twitter account.

This is just a snapshot of how God given talents of some of our twenty volunteer board members came to us,taken from a secular world and used for His plan.

J.T. and with "Santa" (First Coast Living's Nick Loren) makes smiles appear.

J.T. and with “Santa” (First Coast Living’s Nick Loren) makes smiles appear.

What this foundation has meant to J.T. Townsend is certainly larger than he could have dreamed. He personally delivers every piece of equipment to each client and visits with them leaving them with renewed hope. They see first hand what J.T. has been able to do while living life from a wheelchair. For two years J.T. has delivered toys to very sick children at Nemours Children’s Clinic. These families are strapped with medical expenses making a Christmas gift very much appreciated. J.T. is often asked to share his inspiring story before groups. And, is working diligently to complete his studies at UNF with a degree in Sports Management. He will begin an Internship with The Wounded Warrior Project in January, 2013 the final class required for his graduation. As the President of JTTF he overseas daily operation and strategizes the course for growth of his foundation. This is a dream come true. But, J.T. gives God the glory for all of it. He realizes God’s plan was even bigger than the one he himself had for his life.

Those of us who have seen how one piece of adaptive equipment can make the day a little bit easier for a caregiver and give the patient a little taste of independence in a world where so much is relied on from others, understands the depth of what we are doing. Each client brings with them a compelling story of need, sacrifice and oceans of love. We have become connected with them in a very special way. We feel as if we are all a part of one large community family and it feels so very good for all of us.

We say we are in the “miracle business”. We can take a frown and turn it into a smile.

We truly believe.

Tommy, Judi and our friend – J.T. Townsend