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A pair of aces trumps a tragedy

'Hope' and 'Faith' lead the way at the Texas Hold'em Tournament for the Susan & Mike Gunning benefit

Posted: November 15, 2008 10:11 p.m.
Updated: November 16, 2008 4:55 a.m.

Auctioneer Don Fleming, left, points to a bidder in the crowd as co-auctioneer Rick Chambers, anchorman and reporter for CBS2/KCAL-9, watches at the Susan and Mike Gunning Family Benefit held Nov. 8 at the Hyatt Valencia.

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The crowded parking lot at the Hyatt Valencia told much of the story. There one could spot a brand new Porsche Turbo, many Lexus sedans, a Rolls Royce and a Ferrari parked next to several "soccer mom" vans; a "Surf Baby" license plate on a Toyota Corolla and many cars bearing Valencia Dance Team stickers.

In short, everyone was here. More than 400 friends, family, school mates, community leaders and 160 serious poker players showed up for the Texas Hold'em Tournament for the Susanna and Mike Gunning Family Benefit to raise money to support the couple's two sons, still reeling from the shock of losing both parents within the past year.

The person most responsible for this unique fundraiser was Judy Janusek of Valencia, who had no question as to why it was so imperative to help the family.

"We lost good friends," Janusek said. "I just could not just sit by and do nothing after they passed away.
"We had known the Gunnings for 12 years. Our kids went to school together and we baby-sat for each other."

Ironically, shortly after Susanna Gunning was diagnosed in 2006 with stage four melanoma, Janusek was diagnosed with breast cancer. They went through surgery, chemo and radiation at the same time.

But it was after the boy's father, Mike, passed away in July that Janusek felt she really needed to do something significant to help their sons, Sean, 23, and Evan, 16, a junior at Valencia High School and a close friend of Janusek's 16-year-old son, Ben.

So Janusek and another friend and neighbor, Barbara Beck, rallied their friends to create a fundraiser to enable the boys to stay in their own home in Valencia and eventually pay for Evan's college.

The women formed a committee to organize the benefit, and by Labor Day they had placed stories in the local media.

According to Janusek, the response was phenomenal, and within a few weeks they had already received more than $25,000 in donations from the community.

The Mike Gunning Family Trust is held at SCV Bank and managed by the boys' uncle, Dan Gunning, who is a business and real estate lawyer in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Janusek said they expected to raise another $30,000 for the boys that evening.

"Judy and Barbara are so wonderful, dedicated," said Dan Gunning, who lost his father in July.

Indeed, what Janusek did was put something together almost single-handedly to help relieve some of the pain of three generations of a family losing so many members in such a short time.

"We are blown away by what they have done," Gunning said. "It is incredible how much time they donated to this event. My wife and I had a lot to do; my mother takes a lot of time.

"But when Barb and Judy came forward and said they wanted to do something, we were very supportive of what they wanted to do. They did everything to put this together."

A Full House
Janusek still can't believe how it all came together.

"We put the entire event together in just about nine weeks," she marveled.

But vendors signed up, checks came pouring in and hundreds of silent and live auction items were donated, including an adorable pair of puppies.

Rick Chambers, the Emmy Award-winning reporter and anchor for CBS2/KCAL-9 television, was co-auctioneer with Don Fleming of Valencia Acura.

Chambers is a neighbor and good friend of the Januseks (their daughters were on the Valencia Dance Team together) and agreed to play auctioneer for such a good cause. He also had a good night of poker and survived until the last five tables.

"Most players are playing for the family," he said. "Making it to the final table is just the icing on the cake."

Scott Schauer, the executive director of the Michael Hoefflin Foundation, donated 10 poker tables to use for the tournament and also played very good poker, but not good enough for the final 10.

Still, he said the only thing that was important was that the boys were well taken care of.

"We don't always think of what happens to the families left behind when we lose people to cancer," he said.

Dave Mancini of J&M Entertainment provided the dealers, cards, and chips and acted as emcee, keeping the entire thing rolling all night.

The Valencia Hyatt provided a sumptuous buffet of pastas, salads, cheeses, chutneys and hundreds of yummy dessert pastries.

In the lobby among the hundreds of silent auction baskets were those from vendors from The Pampered Chef and Carol Wexler with her "Borrowed Bling" purses and jewelry. Shelley's Fashions brought beautiful handmade sweaters and jackets.

At the beginning of the tournament, Barbara Beck walked up to Janusek and handed her a $500 check.
"This couple read the story in the paper and just wanted to help," Best said. "They knew about the tournament tonight and just dropped off the check."

Janusek, a ball of energy and nerves, took the check and started to run off to teach the girls from the Valencia Dance Team to sell the "rebuys" to the players.

"We didn't know we would have such a tremendous response from the community," Janusek said. "We are not a charity or nonprofit, so the money is just a straight donation."

But the response from the Santa Clarita Valley was magnificent.

Among the prizes offered to the poker players were a Princess Cruises vacation to the Mexican Riviera or Caribbean and a Cabo San Lucas vacation at the Hacienda Del Mar Beach Resort. Other prizes included a day at the Valencia Country Club with Randy Wrage, Disney Concert Hall tickets, Los Angeles Dodgers tickets and trips to Disneyland.

Live auction items included a seven-night Costa Rica vacation for four at Sanctuary Resort; jewelry from Ro Ma jewelry; a John Williams "Anthology" autographed songbook; an "Indiana Jones" poster autographed by Harrison Ford, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas; and a limited-edition framed print of Arnold Frieberg's "Gentlemen, Mind If I Join You?"

Silent auction items included a Mammoth Mountain vacation weekend at the West Monache Resort; sunglasses by Juicy, Gucci, Armani and Dior; six weeks of Boot Camp Session and VIP tickets to the "The Ellen Show."

Hope and Faith
Puppies are always highlights at auctions, but the fluffy nine-week-old golden/Labrador retriever mixes, Hope and Faith, donated by breeder Kim Bennington, were especially irresistible.

So when auctioneers Chambers and Fleming started turning up the heat, Pete Ferry just couldn't say "no" and surprised his wife, Dee, by bidding $2,500 for both pups.

Dee was literally shaking, crying and laughing with surprise as she hugged Faith, the furry, blonde puppy who had just been placed into her hands.

"We just moved to Valencia a few months ago," said Pete Ferry, who is Councilman Frank Ferry's brother.
"We don't have children and we planned to get a dog around Christmas. But this really worked out great; we got the best pups and it benefited the best cause, to help these boys."

Hailey Well is a vet tech at Happy Vets Clinic in Valencia. She was the official "puppy wrangler" for the evening and couldn't stop hugging Hope.

"This is such a neat event," she said. "I am so happy they have raised so much money for a good cause."
But Cheri Fleming was thrilled the pups were bought by the Ferrys and would stay together, just like the Gunning brothers were able to do.

"It was as if like everything came full circle, like a happy ending to the tragedy," she said. "The family staying together, getting together."

But Fleming was also impressed with the tremendous response from the community in support of the Gunnings.

"In these horrid economic times it's nice to see the backbone (of the SCV) is still strong," she said. "It gets us through it, this is what we are all about."

Just a nice family
Susanna and Mike Gunning were a happily married couple and loving parents. They lived a quiet and unassuming life in Valencia for 21 years. Susanna was an assistant in the nurse's office at North Park Elementary School.

Mike was a digital animator at DreamWorks Animation. But their lives were forever changed on Jan. 23, 2006, when Susanna was diagnosed with stage four melanoma.

According to Janusek, Susanna underwent surgery to remove the primary brain tumor, followed by radiation and chemotherapy over the course of the next six months. Ten months after her diagnosis, her husband, Mike, was diagnosed with bladder cancer.

He underwent the removal and reconstruction of his bladder from his large intestines, followed by a three-month course of chemotherapy. During his chemotherapy Susanna had to go through her second round of chemotherapy and the couple for a time became "chemo-buddies."

Susanna's health continued to deteriorate from July until she lost her brave and courageous battle on Nov. 23, 2007, at the age of 50.

Mike and the boys picked up the pieces and began to move on with their lives. But Janusek said tragedy struck again as Mike fell victim to a large layoff at DreamWorks Animation.

Two weeks later, he learned his cancer had reccurred with a vengeance.

According to Janusek, five days after Mike received his first chemo treatment, he was hospitalized with complications of pneumonia. Mike passed away on July 19, a month after his 51st birthday.

Fortunately, Evan and Sean have always had their Aunt and Uncle Eileen and Dan Gunning of Valencia by their side.

Unfortunately, Mike and Dan's father, Ron, passed away in Reno on July 24. Their aunt, Marion Thompson (their mother's sister), came down from Saskatchewan, Canada, to live with the boys six months ago.

She plans to stay for at least two years until the boys get back on their feet and some decisions have been made.

"While I can't replace their mother, I am here to offer them supervision, especially for Evan," Thompson said.

A pair of aces
It was 11:45 p.m. when the final pair of pocket aces flopped on the last poker table Saturday night.
Amid the crowd, laughter and applause, it was 16-year-old Evan Gunning who finally emerged the grand prizewinner of the Susanne and Mike Texas Hold'em Tournament for the Gunning Family Benefit.

Red-faced, hyperventilating and sweaty from the past several hours of stressful play, Evan flashed a broad smile that acknowledged he had just beaten great odds by winning the tournament against some serious players.

Add to that, he was able to choose his own prizes: the seven-day cruise for two to the Caribbean on Princess Cruises. Evan and Sean also chose the foursome of golf at Valencia Country Club, donated by Randy Wrage.

"I'm still in shock," Evan gushed. "I can't believe I won with pocket aces."

"I said it from the second we walked in he was going to win," Sean Gunning said.

He also revealed that his younger brother plays poker weekly. But at midnight, in a truly gracious manner, the boys sincerely thanked everyone for supporting them that night.

As they hugged, Evan and Sean seemed to represent the extraordinary level of love and devotion that has allowed them to triumph over their family tragedy.

And just like a pair of aces, they are always on the winning side.

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