Winner, winner, chicken dinner
Helping the Buffalo community one meat raffle at a time
“Number 102,” the emcee says.
Seven Buffalonians jump up and cheer as they receive 12-to-14-pound turkeys.
“Number 53,” the emcee says.
Seven more Buffalonians stand and cheer as they receive two racks of ribs.
Meat raffles have taken over Western New York on Friday and Saturday nights. For just five dollars, each guest is allowed unlimited beer, soda and the chance to gamble for meat across Buffalo.
The Wheels with Wings Foundation held its fourth annual meat raffle Friday night at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Cheektowaga. Many reserve tables ahead of the event to guarantee prime position for the end of the night pick-your-own meat madness. The foundation sold raffle tickets for one and two dollars so guests could win a box of pizza logs, three pounds of bacon or eight-ounce New York strip steaks. Wheels with Wings expected to earn over $10,000 by the end of the night.
Within all of the jubilation of winning a 10-pound pork tenderloin, many forget the purpose behind the meat raffle.
Natalie Barnhard is the president and founder of the Wheels with Wings Foundation. Barnhard was only 24 when she suffered a life-changing injury.
On October 22, 2004 a 600-pound exercise weight machine fell on her at work. Barnhard suffered a spinal cord injury resulting in her paralysis and became a quadriplegic.
The foundation aims to assist individuals who have suffered a spinal cord injury and their families. Wheels with Wings works firsthand with those injured in the Buffalo area to give quality of life grants and help return them to a sense of normalcy.
“Everything I worked for and thought of was just totally gone,” Barnhard said. “I have just figured out how to build the pieces back up again. It took a long time. I'm so grateful for family. I did a lot of therapy and I was mostly focused on myself and my own recovery. It was tough just getting the things you need. I was fighting for what was next, trying to figure everything out. I never thought I would do this, ever.”
Wheels with Wings is just one of many charities able to give back through meat raffles.
Brian Weber no longer has use of his hands, arms and legs after a swimming incident that left his neck broken. In order to maneuver, he uses a puffer straw attached to his powered chair. Before his injury, Weber was a physical education teacher.
Weber was granted a stander by Wheels with Wings. He has since returned to coaching football, according to vice president and Natalie’s mother Mary Lynn Barnhard in an email.
“Insurance only gives so much,” Mary Lynn said. “They only look at what you can do right now, what is your function. They never look to see what can you accomplish.”
Wheels with Wings used to primarily fundraise from walks. They earned more than the average breast cancer walker, according to Mary Lynn. They switched over to meat raffles due to the lesser cost it took to run and oversaturation of charity walks.
“It's tough because it's the hardest injury. You fight as hard as you can,” Barnhard said. “In the beginning it's all about walking. Then it becomes about your independence and living your life with a disability. You get to this point when it comes to being about life, living and finding a purpose in all of it. In the beginning you don't have that and you don't understand why this horrible thing happened. You don't understand. I have a good faith in God and I think that's really helped me. My family has helped me. Now I can be able to give back to other people and feel good about it.”
The meat raffle has 12 rounds, each with three separate prizes. One ticket gives participants nine chances to win.
Three rounds into the night, people begin to feel lucky. One woman credits her shirt after winning two prizes. Someone else yells, “I’m not going home with an empty cooler tonight.”
Many participants and groups will bring coolers to meat raffles. The event is three hours long and no one wants anything to spoil. Families and friends might split the winnings and cook everything up for a community meal, according to Jim Coyle, a grand knight of the Father Justin Council at the Knights of Columbus.
Coyle was the bartender Friday night.
“People will spend $100 and win nothing or spend $100 and win pork chops they could have bought at the store,” Coyle said.
Meat raffles have become such a popular fundraising event that the Knights of Columbus Hall is booked every Friday and Saturday from August to June of next year, according to Coyle.
As the night goes on and Labatt Blue Light flows from the tap, people begin to get rowdier. Small feuds break out for “lucky” ticket sellers, winning pizza logs feels the same as a car and more dollar bills are raised into the air.
The disco ball hanging above the room is only shining on the winners. More and more, people break out their best moves before picking up a five-pound bag of breaded chicken breasts.
Round 13 begins and it's a free for all. Whatever was not previously raffled off is made to be winner’s choice. Tickets are increased to five dollars as primal instincts take over.
Winners are sprinting to the counter to select their prize.
“Get the bacon,” a man yells at his child.
For 10 minutes, the hall is in complete disarray and the focus shifts toward the families. They begin to count their winnings and figure out what they will do with it. They may forget the cause they supported but will remember the unique experience until the next one.
Nathaniel Mendelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NateMendelson