In loving memory of cancer victims

Car dealers driven by lemonade stand

October 09, 2004|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

It's the start of Columbus Day weekend, not as important as Labor Day or Memorial Day in the annals of auto sales, but still a potentially lucrative Saturday.

At his morning meeting with sales reps, though, Koons Volvo general manager Todd Ruprecht will tell his guys that today is not about selling cars.

It's about raising money for pediatric cancer and fulfilling the dream of a little girl who hoped to raise $1 million by selling lemonade.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Saturday's Today section misidentified the company that donated hundreds of new Pontiacs to members of the audience at The Oprah Winfrey Show. It was General Motors. The Sun regrets the error.

"If we sell no cars and raise a lot of money," he'll say, "I'll be happy."

A gimmick, right? Like the marketing bonanza Chrysler staged recently when it gave away hundreds of new Pontiacs on The Oprah Winfrey Show?

"Anybody who thinks that," says Ruprecht, "doesn't know us."

In recent weeks at his dealership in Owings Mills and two others in the Baltimore area, customers may have noticed miniature cardboard lemonade stands on tables and desks featuring a photo of Alex Scott, 8, and the stand she set up to raise money for cancer research.

What they couldn't see was a photograph taped to Ruprecht's computer, of a happy little girl with long blonde hair unwrapping presents under the Christmas tree: Ruprecht's daughter, Kirstin. She, too, died of cancer.

At a medium-size dealer like Koons, 10 or 15 people might test-drive a car on a Saturday. But today when Ruprecht tells his commission-dependent staff not to worry about selling cars, he expects them to nod.

That's what they did in June, anyway, on the Saturday morning Koons Volvo put out its homemade lemonade stand for the first time and offered drinks to customers, donations optional. One guy gave $100.

Of course, they sold cars that day - how could they miss, being so relaxed and happy and friendly? But come Monday, their first question was not how many cars were sold but, "How much did we raise?" ($2,500).

So, this weekend, they are giving away lemonade again, and along with 350 Volvo dealers across the country they are staging a test drive for charity - dealers will donate $10 to a local charity for every test drive today and Monday. Volvo calls it the largest one-time fund-raiser for local charities. Dealers can pick any local charity, and Koons, Bill Kidd's Volvo and Village Volvo have decided to donate it all to Alex Scott. Alex had raised $700,000 by the time she died in August.

Ruprecht met her in March, at a dealers' meeting to unveil this year's new models, in Orlando. He had no idea Volvo would also introduce nominees for its annual hero's award, in which the winner gets $50,000 and a Volvo for life.

Alex Scott was a runner-up.

And he had no clue, in a business he's known for 25 years, a business with a tough bunch of people, that he wouldn't see a dry eye after Alex spoke. He returned to Baltimore ready to do something - something more, because he can't do enough to find the one extra dollar that could make the difference in a kid's cancer.

"When I'm tired," he says, "then I try harder."

Some days when he goes to Alex's Web site and reads what she wrote, he grows teary-eyed. He thinks his daughter, had she lived eight years beyond her diagnosis as Alex did, might have been the same kind of girl. Instead, she died at 8, little more than one year after she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Even before her illness, Kirstin was the kind of kid who packed toys in her backpack to give away to school friends. During her illness, she took on the gloomy radiation clinic, getting the staff to find toys, fresh coffee and juice, and providing the cheer herself, her parents say. And, although the drug she took didn't make her lose her hair, she shaved her head in solidarity with children who did.

She was born in 1989, two months after Ruprecht took a job as head of parts and service at Koons. Now 45, Ruprecht is manager. He's friendly, like a salesman; hefty, with gray-streaked hair combed back off his forehead, showcasing a pleasantly round face, and not too intimidating: His shirt is formal white, but his sports jacket hangs on a chair in his office, next to his overstuffed briefcase.

The photograph on his computer is one way he keeps Kirsten in his life every day. But he and his wife, Julie, also set up foundation to help families with sick children.

For 13 months before their daughter died in 1997, the Ruprechts counted themselves among such families. They were fortunate because they had good medical coverage, and they didn't fear losing their home, as some parents did when one quit work to care for their child.

Cancer in a child was terrible, they knew, but the Ruprechts also discovered families with sick children often faced other problems that led to divorces and poverty. Insurance didn't provide basics like food for kids with feeding tubes, or diapers, for kids who required them. "Those were things people really needed," Mrs. Ruprecht said last week between driving their son, Jacob, 13, to after-school activities and making dinner. "There were people barely making it before their child got sick."

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