TROY – A Troy family received the gift of a lifetime recently as part of the Ellen DeDeneres holiday TV special, “Ellen’s Greatest Night of Giveaways.”
Stan and Dee Dee Bender, along with their children Tag, Ireland and Madyson, were given a four-night trip to Los Angeles and tickets to attend the show’s taping, along with a surprise gift of $400,000.
According to Dee Dee, her husband Stan sent an email to the Ellen DeGeneres Show “on a whim,” asking for tickets to the taping of one of the show’s Christmas-themed episodes.
Stan, who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — or ALS — in December of 2016, is cared for around-the-clock by his wife.
”He just explained to them that I’m his full-time caregiver, and with the kids and everything, there’s just a lot of stress going on and this is something he wanted to surprise us with,” Dee Dee said.
To the family’s shock, he was contacted a day after sending the email by representatives of the show.
“They wanted to do a human interest story, and they Skyped us several times. Then they wanted to send a crew to our house to interview us,” Stan said. “At the end of the interview at our house, they surprised us with a trip to L.A. for a taping of the show.”
Less than a month after sending the initial email, Stan and his family were on a plane to L.A.
“They were very secretive about the whole thing, and as far as we knew, we were just going to be in the audience for a taping,” Dee Dee said.
It wasn’t until the day of the taping, just prior to the start, that they learned they would not just be sitting in the audience, but would in fact be on stage.
DeGeneres, having been moved by the Bender family’s perseverance in the face of Stan’s illness, surprised the family with $400,000 from Green Dot Bank, alongside celebrity guest Justin Timberlake.
“I have so many stories of friends who’ve been affected by ALS. Now, having a son of my own, to have that feeling that you won’t be able to provide for them at such integral years of their life … it just really hit home with me,” said Timberlake. “So to be able to be here with Ellen to give him and them that money was an honor.”
Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, weakening muscles and impacting physical function.
For Stan, symptoms appeared in 2014 in the form of difficulty in lifting his legs, along with dragging his foot, numbness and tingling.
After going through neck and back surgery in an attempt to correct the issues, Stan’s symptoms were still progressing, prompting him to visit several neurologists and medical clinics before finally receiving confirmation that he had ALS.
“You hear and see stories of people with terminal illnesses and cancer, but when it actually happens to you, I think that’s when you realize how terrible it is,” Dee Dee said.
Stan has lost the use of his legs and currently uses a power wheelchair to get around. According to Dee Dee, the disease is progressing into his arms and hands, with his voice beginning to deteriorate, as well.
“We just try to keep a positive attitude; there’s some things we can’t do, but there is a lot we can do, so we just keep going,” Dee Dee said.
Stan adds that the family is simply trying to keep life as “normal” as possible in spite of his illness.
“We can’t change it, so we’re going to make the best of it,” he said.
The couple said the $400,000 gift will go toward Stan’s medical bills and college for their son, Tag. Daughter Madyson previously graduated from Miami University in Oxford, where Ireland is currently a senior.
Dee Dee and Stan said they feel deeply blessed and are “blown away” by the generosity they’ve received. Yet, their main goal, Dee Dee said, is to raise awareness of ALS.
“There are so many people in our shoes, and if there’s anything we can do to possible help them, that’s our goal,” she said. “Someone told me one time that ALS is not an incurable disease, it’s just an under-funded disease. There are a lot of clinical trials going on right now, but so much of it is donation based that unless they get the donations, they can’t continue the research.”
Dee Dee said she and her family have held fundraisers in the past for the ALS Association, and the couple’s three children have raised over $10,000 for the ALS Therapy Development Institute. She also noted the help they’ve received from Team Gleason, a charitable ALS foundation.
The family’s “Ellen’s Greatest Night of Giveaways” episode aired on Dec. 12.
— WDTN contributed to this story.
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