Unimaginable tragedies change people’s lives dramatically — some for the better and some not.
In Sherry Tucker’s case, her life became a compendium of untiring efforts to help other people, after the tragic death of her 8-year-old son, Zach, who succumbed to brain cancer, on May 9, 2006, in Florida.
“Life stopped,” says Tucker, 55.
But not for long. Tucker, her husband, Dirk, and their daughter, Lexi, embarked on a journey that is still unfolding. Last July, Tucker was named chief executive officer of Queens-based WellLife Network, one of the New York metropolitan area’s largest care organizations.
WellLife is a $100 million nonprofit serving some 25,000 individuals through 100 programs that cover behavioral health, family developmental disabilities, addiction recovery services, vocational training, and food pantries. It employs more than 1,800 people, including psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and direct-support professionals.
About 50 percent of WellLife’s work focuses on the developmentally disabled and the other 50 percent on those suffering with mental health and drug abuse issues. Established in 1980, it also operates group homes and is funded by New York City, New York State, and Nassau and Suffolk counties.
May is Mental Health Month, and Tucker said WellLife will staff a table at the National Alliance on Mental Ilnesss’ May 10 walk-a-thon. WellLife is also hosting a community service day May 17. About 100 volunteers, composed of community members and staff, will work on beautification projects at its facilities.
Sitting at a conference table in her third-floor office, Tucker, a native Midwesterner, says she doesn’t think she would be WellLlife’s CEO had it not been for what she and her family went through.
“I think all of that enlightened me,” says Tucker, a CPA by training. “It awakened me to spirituality. My husband and I focused on what was coming next and what we had to do.”
Before Zach’s illness, the family was living a “very typical and normal” life in Florida, where they moved to escape the deep and long Midwestern winter.
“Our family was living the middle-class American dream,” Tucker wrote in a book she published in 2008, Unfinished Love: Walking By Faith Through Pediatric Cancer.
Her CPA job and her husband’s engineering position provided a good living. There were soccer games, music lessons, swim meets, and basketball.
Then Zach had trouble moving his arm, then a leg. The couple panicked.
“We certainly never thought about pediatric cancer,” Tucker wrote.
The mourning was deep. But according to Tucker, one day, the couple’s daughter, then 11, said, “’Mom, Zack would not want this. He would want us to celebrate his life.’”
“That knocked me over,” Tucker recalls.
So, the family went out and took popsicles to the local swim team. Tucker decided, she says, that God had a mission for her, to help others heal.
She started an organization in Tampa, Giving Hope through Faith Foundation, which offered services to children fighting cancer at local hospitals. She gave out $100 coupons to Wal-Mart so parents could buy food, toys, fuel, or simply go to a movie. Even the small dollar amounts helped.
“One mother said, ‘Thank you. I used the money so I could buy a dress to bury my daughter in,” Tucker recalls.
Through a business connection in Florida, Tucker hooked up with an agency, then known as Promoting Specialized Care and Health (PSCH), which later became WellLife. She signed on as a consultant in 2010, became chief financial officer in 2015 and CEO on July 1, 2018. The family now lives in Roslyn. She replaced Alan M. Weinstock, who retired last year after 11 years.
Joshua Lamberg, founder and CEO Lamb Insurance Services, which works exclusively with nonprofit and social service agencies, has come to know Tucker well.
“Sherry has been outstanding in the way she has managed her staff and moved WellLife into the forefront of the industry,” says Lamberg, who last year was honored by the agency for contributions to its programs.
Tucker is guided by seeing to it that she follows principles her son would favor.
“I want that moment when I see my Zack next,” she says, her voice steady and strong. “He will say, ‘Mom you made me proud. You made a difference in life.’”