On pandemic pause for the past two years, the 1,000 Islands Charity Poker Run in Clayton, N.Y., returned earlier this month without missing a beat. The event, which benefits the Make-A-Wish of Central New York organization and the River Hospital Wellness Program in nearby Alexandria Bay, attracted 85 boats and raised approximately $160,000 from the charity auction and card play alone. The event organizers are estimating the total amount of money raised to exceed $200,000.
“We wanted to come back with a bang—that was very important to us—and I think we did that,” said Renee Lalonde who, along with her husband, Ken, and Alexandra Buduson, Bobby Cantwell, Jeff Morgan and Courtney Rutherford, serves on the 1,000 Islands Charity Poker Run organizing committee. “There was a lot of pent-up demand for this event, and the charities we support, after the event being canceled for the past two years, were starved for money.”
The weekend began with a Thursday night street celebration and exhibit with high-performance powerboats from DCB Performance Boats,Mystic Powerboats, MTI, Nor-Tech and more on display. Also in the mix, Diamond Sponsor Mercury Racing with its Tour Truck—which attracted a steady stream of curious visitors eager to get a close look at the inner workings of an 1,100-hp, quad-cam four-valve sterndrive engine and a 450R, the most powerful outboard offering by the Fond du Lac, Wis., company.
A couple of 1,000 Islands Charity Poker Run first-timers, Steve Miller, Mercury Racing’s director of customer experience, and Nick Petersen, the company’s performance propeller manager, were on hand for the entire weekend.
“What a beautiful area,” said Miller. “I can see why they do a poker run here. The water is beautiful. The scenery is beautiful. The resort is great. It’s just the perfect place to host an event. And, of course, what better cause than the Make-A-Wish foundation?”
The following morning, several poker-run participants including longtime 1,000 Islands Charity Poker Run supporter Kelly O’Hara and his wife, Julie, gave boat rides to children in the Make-A-Wish program. For O’Hara, who would take top honors that evening in the stereo competition thanks to the massive custom sound system in his 36-foot MTI catamaran, providing rides to the Make-A-Wish kids is the highpoint of the annual event.
“We didn’t have quite as many kids as we did last time,” he said. “But it was still the best part of the weekend for me.”
Saturday’s poker run, which covered more than 100 miles on the St. Lawrence River, proved picture perfect. In the early days of the event, the poker-runners returned to the 1,000 Islands Harbor Hotel host-venue starting point for lunch and then headed out again for the second half of run. As it did in 2019, the lunch-stop in Alexandria Bay, the home of event-title-sponsor Aqua-Mania, made for a change of spectacular scenery.
But the event’s highpoint was the wish granted during the post-run banquet celebration. This year’s 1,000 Islands Charity Poker Run backed Make-A-Wish recipient—No. 2,000 for the nonprofit charity’s Central New York chapter—was Natalie “The Brave” Gondek.
Her nickname suits her. At just five years old, she has been battling Lymphoblastic Leukemia and its nightmare of complications since she was two years old. And she just completed her first full-year out of treatment.
Young Natalie Gondek wished for a camping trailer, more specifically a Barbie-themed camping trailer, for her and her family. And in front of a roaring crowd of 1,000 Islands Charity Poker Run participants and sponsors from Aqua-Mania in nearby Alexandria, N.Y., to Mystic Powerboats of DeLand, Fla., that’s exactly what she received.
Per 1,000 Islands Charity Poker Run tradition, the festivities closed with fireworks high above the St. Lawrence River. And with the just-released dates for the 2023 event—July 13-15—there are more fireworks yet to come.
“It was incredibly important to come back strong this year,” said Morgan, one of the event’s founders. “It means a lot to Make-A-Wish of Central New York. It means a lot to this community.”