The Fulkerson family of Schaumburg lost. And that defeat turned into something far richer.
When Jeff and Stacy Fulkerson entered the National Mobility Awareness Month contest last year, they hoped their story about doing everything for their severely disabled son, James, would win them enough online votes to walk away with the top prize -- a much-needed new van, modified to handle James' wheelchair and extensive medical equipment.
Suffering from effects of a stroke before his birth, cerebral palsy and epilepsy, the couple's son, who turns 5 in August, can't move his limbs, walk, talk or swallow, and he needs to have his airway suctioned often. To get him to his morning special-education preschool at Helen Keller Junior High in Schaumburg, his mom had to lift the boy's 44-pound body into his car seat in the back of her compact Dodge Caliber, take the wheels off his wheelchair to fit it in her trunk, and later reassemble it, often in frigid temperatures in an icy parking lot. Their story sounded worthy of winning a van.
"Not even close," Stacy Fulkerson says of the online voting that saw her family finish well behind the contest winners. She didn't complain.
"You read these stories and you're like, 'Oh, wow! They really need it. I should vote for them,'" she remembers thinking after reading contest entries from others vying to win a van. "There's always someone worse off than you. Be grateful for what you have and who you know."
Who they know responded to the Fulkersons' contest loss by staging a fundraiser so the family could buy a van. The goodwill created by that event in April covered lots of ground, but the end result was delivered to the Fulkersons' driveway last week.
"I just love red. I had a red Dodge Neon when I was in college. I love red cars," Stacy Fulkerson says to describe the new red Dodge Caravan that accommodates James' wheelchair and includes all the hooks and special attachments required for the boys' medical equipment. "It's really nice."
Consultant Steve Martin of Mobility Works in Villa Park worked with the family to design the van, which cost about $47,000. A national auto dealership specializing in vehicles for people with disabilities, Mobility Works contributed to the Fulkersons' fundraiser.
"The Fulkersons are a wonderful family," says Nikki Weiland, client relations manager for the local office. "These families deserve any help they get."
Not covered by insurance, these vehicles can be a "lifeline to the outside world," Weiland says. "I've delivered a lot of vehicles, and people are crying and always give you a hug."
In addition to his new ride, James Fulkerson recently was named the 2014 Chicago area's "Face of Epilepsy" by the Epilepsy Warriors Foundation, a charity that raises funds and awareness for families and research.
"That's one of the hardest things to do: pick one child out of so many. But I have not seen a little boy who has been through as much as James has," says Susan Noble, founder of the charity. "When you look at him, there's a brightness about him. James is just a great, little kid."
James will be in the spotlight at the charity's Bridge of Hope Gala Dinner and Silent Auction on Friday, June 27, at the Chicago Cultural Center. Emceed by WGN TV's Dina Bair, the event raises money that will go toward epilepsy resources at the University of Chicago's Comer Children's Hospital and Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Comprehensive Epilepsy Center.
"It's no different from any of the other diseases out there," Noble says of epilepsy. "All of them need awareness and funding, but epilepsy just gets passed over. It's been on a back burner."
For more information on epilepsy and on the gala, visit epilepsywarriors.org.
Because of the generosity of all those who stepped up to help, the grateful Fulkersons' drive to the gala will be far more comfortable, but it won't be free of stress.
"With the construction on 90," Stacy Fulkerson says, "we don't know how long it will take."