EAST PEORIA — When Penny Underhill opened the doors of her house Wednesday afternoon to receive a Bradley University freshman, she didn't know what to expect. Little did she know that it wasn't just another regular visit.
With her mom and stepdad by her side, AsiaKai Dang, 18, handed Greg Underhill's wife a $5,000 check from a Chicago-based program called VING Project.
Backed up by an anonymous family, the project gives teens an opportunity to surprise a deserving person with what they call a "boost."
Greg Underhill is a former East Peoria firefighter who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, about three years ago.
A surprised and overwhelmed Penny Underhill said the money came at the right time and that she is extremely grateful for the support she has been receiving the last few years.
"I am old enough now to realize what it means to be part of a community," Penny Underhill said. "Paying forward comes back. Greg and I worked in this community for years, and I think we both have been helpful in our own way. I see so many people helping and their children helping and I realized that's how a community works. One person helps another, who helps another, who helps another. It just keeps going around. You just take care of each other, and that's what this community is about."
Earlier this year, after seeing East Peoria firefighter Drew Rubel start a Go Fund Me page for Greg Underhill, Dang realized she couldn't contribute a lot, being a college student. She then remembered seeing a guest speaker for VING in one of the conferences she attended as the vice president of student council while still in high school.
"I remember thinking 'I am 18 and I can do this instead,'" Dang said. "I think it's an awesome project."
In her VING nomination video, Dang talked about the Underhills' battle and said that "we all deserve a chance of happiness, in some way, shape or form."
Although the program usually hands out $1,000 checks, VING director Alli Neff said they were so touched by the Underhills' story and the support they have been receiving from the community that they decided to increase the donation.
"With the holidays right around the corner, the additional VING boost felt like the right way to help this family during this incredibly difficult time,” Neff said.
Fire Chief Alan Servis, Dang's stepdad, has been one of Greg Underhill's best friends for years. As Dang got old enough to be at the Fire Department, she got the chance to meet Penny Underhill, a "super sweet lady." After Greg Underhill's diagnosis, Dang saw up close how much the entire family was affected by it.
"Penny has had to give up so much," Dang said. "She used to own a business and she had to stop working and sell the vehicle she was using for her job. Even their son stopped working and is taking care of Greg. I just think it's so sad she has to go through that at all, and to have a financial burden on top of it."
Dang knows that while the stress of dealing with such a challenging and painful disease may be eased with love, the bills won't go away.
"As much as she is going through, I could give her a million dollars and it won't make her feel better," Dang said. "But anything to get rid of the heartache and pain from having to manage daily parts of your life I think it's a great thing. She can be concerned about him and spend more time with him rather than worrying how they are going to pay the electric bill that month."
Although the life expectancy of a person with ALS averages two to five years after the diagnosis, many can live longer. Stephen Hawking, for instance, is challenging doctors and has been living with ALS for the last 54 years.
Dang's mom, Cynthia, said that this isn't the first time her daughter has taken the lead to help those in need. When a tornado destroyed many homes in Washington, Cynthia said Dang and her friends sold baked goods to raise money for the families affected.
"I am so overwhelmed by the fact that this is a day when I get to really wear the badge of mom," Cynthia said, wiping away tears. "She has always been that person that wants to better the community, or better herself or better her friends."
Elisa Marques can be reached at 686-3194 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @elisacmarques.