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Steve Ziemke and Gulf Coast Western Spread Holiday Cheer for Children Battling Cancer With Sadie’s Sleigh

Steve Ziemke and Gulf Coast Western
Photo Courtesy: Sadie’s Sleigh


The holidays are a time of joy and celebration for most families, but Christmas is often a challenge for families of children with cancer. It’s something Sadie Keller, a 16-year-old leukemia survivor, knew all too well. She was diagnosed with leukemia at age 7 and went into remission when she was 11. Sadie used this experience to spread hope by founding Sadie’s Sleigh, an annual event that distributes toys to pediatric cancer patients and their siblings.

But Sadie knew she needed a lot of support to pull off this ambitious plan. She found her champion in fellow cancer survivor and Gulf Coast Western CEO Matthew Fleeger. “She found this niche for these kids in the hospitals and even their brothers and sisters outside of the hospitals who didn’t really have much of a Christmas. So her big thing was getting donations, going around to gather funds to get toys for the kids in the hospital,” said Steve Ziemke, Gulf Coast Western Executive Vice President. He shares the story behind Sadie’s Sleigh and how the charity’s partnership with Gulf Coast Western spreads cheer to hundreds of families every year.

The Inspirational Story of Sadie’s Sleigh

Sadie Keller spent four long years battling leukemia — that’s four difficult Christmases for Sadie and her family. The medical appointments, hospital stays, and bills made it difficult for the family to get into the holiday spirit. Through Sadie’s Sleigh, the courageous young girl wanted to lift patients’ spirits by distributing toys at the Children’s Medical Center in Dallas. “It is my goal to collect over 10,000 toys for kids fighting childhood cancer in a hospital,” said Sadie. “To hope they all get what they want for Christmas and maybe just have a smile for a minute.”

When Fleeger heard about Sadie’s Sleigh, he knew he had to get involved. “Because I have experienced cancer myself, I have a survivor’s compassion for the impact cancer has physically and spiritually on adults,” he said. “I cannot imagine the strength and courage required for a child to endure this disease.”

Steve Ziemke Shares the Joy of Giving Through Sadie’s Sleigh

Sadie’s Sleigh is personal to Fleeger as a cancer survivor, but Steve Ziemke also relates to the charity’s mission on a deep level. “We have three boys, and I have three grandchildren. And you just never know. It could be anyone,” he said. “People don’t think about the families, the brothers and sisters dealing with that situation, and the financial strain that puts on the families, and to know that the siblings are involved and get toys too is pretty cool.”

Gulf Coast Western has worked with Sadie’s Sleigh for years, donating as much as $80,000 and over 10,000 toys, with the goal of increasing its donations annually. “It’s grown dramatically each year. Everybody within the company donates to their ability, and our CEO matches that money,” Ziemke explained.

Once the company collects funds, it’s time to go on a shopping spree. Employees choose a certain type of toy or niche, like electronics or stuffed animals. From there, they work directly with retailers to buy the season’s hottest items in bulk. “We go to Walmart and Target and get all these toys for anywhere from 2-year-olds up to a teenager because all these kids are in cancer wards trying to survive,” Ziemke added. 

From there, Gulf Coast Western employees fill the company lobby with goodies: gaming consoles, bikes, dolls, tanks, and Power Wheels as far as the eye can see. “It’s a big lobby, and there’s hardly any room to even walk around sometimes,” he shared.

Instead of simply passing out the toys, Gulf Coast Western officially presents them to Sadie in person the day of the company’s annual Christmas party. “That was such an amazing experience,” Sadie said of the company’s generous donations. “Everywhere I looked around the lobby, it was like Nintendo Switches, Xboxes, bicycles, and amazing gifts that anyone would want.

Once the team officially presents the gifts to Sadie’s Sleigh, they get to work playing the part of Santa Claus. “We load up a huge truck up, and that truck goes to distribute to all the hospices and the cancer ward,” Steve Ziemke said.

The Lasting Impact of Sadie’s Sleigh

While the Gulf Coast Western team works hard to provide Christmas to families in need during the holiday season, that’s just the beginning. The company has sponsored Yellowball, the Sadie Keller Foundation’s annual fundraising event. 

While Sadie’s Sleigh started at the Dallas Children’s Medical Center, the program now operates in over 10 children’s hospitals across the United States, with more slated to join. It’s all to spread cheer in even the darkest of times. “It’s pretty rewarding. You can just picture their faces when they walk in with the toys and presents. It’s pretty cool to be part of that,” Steve Ziemke said.

Published by: Nelly Chavez

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