Jennifer Vasilakos got the shocking surprise of her life after helping a man who stopped to ask her for directions. That man happened to be the billionaire founder of the Beanie Baby company and what he did may have saved her life. NBC's Kristen Dahlgren reports.
By Kristen Dahlgren and Erica Ayisi, NBC News
What started out as a modest fundraising event held in a Santa Barbara, Calif., parking lot has turned into a life-changing moment for Jennifer Vasilakos, thanks to a chance meeting with Beanie Baby billionaire Ty Warner.
It all began in a parking lot in July of last year. Vasilakos, 42, set up a table near her hometown's annual Santa Barbara French Festival to raise money for stem cell treatment, displaying signs and flyers that explained her cause. She also brought a small moneybox to stash cash made from parking cars for festival-goers.
Equipped with sunglasses, a water bottle and coffee, Vasilakos was prepared to spend the day raising awareness and telling people her personal story – that she was diagnosed with acute renal failure in 2011 and had received dialysis three times a day, three times a week. It was a grueling regimen that she would endure the rest of her life. A kidney transplant wasn’t an option; she had been rejected as a candidate because of a previous bout with cancer.
Vasilakos, a Reiki teacher and herbalist, decided her only option was to save up for stem cell treatment – a costly procedure that is not performed in the United States.
But as the day wore on, her moneybox largely remained empty. The festival, she said, “was completely dead.”
That's when a lost driver in a “small little car” drove up, looking for directions. Jennifer chatted him up.
Louis Lanzano / ASSOCIATED PRESS
Ty Warner, Beanie Baby creator and chief executive of Ty Inc., arrives at the Toy Fair to sign
“The man rolls down the window, has a piece of paper in his hand and he’s looking for a local business,” she recalled. “I provide him instructions and because I am fundraising that day to get my stem cell treatment, I hand him my flyer.”
The man gave her $50.
About an hour later, the driver returned, looked her in the eye and asked if she was the woman in the flyer raising money for stem cell treatment. She confirmed that she was.
Courtesy of Jennifer Vasilakos
Jennifer Vasilakos received this note from Ty Warner, accompanied by a check for $20,000. It reads: "Dear Jennifer, Someone up there loves you because I was guided to meet you on Saturday. I never lose my way, but fate had me lost and ask you for direction. The rest of the story I hope will be a wonderful new life for you. God bless you Jennifer. Ty."
The man replied, “I’m Ty Warner, and I’d like to help you with this and take care of it for you.”
Yes, that Ty Warner – of Ty Inc., the billionaire brain behind the Beanie Babies collectibles craze. Vasilakos said she recognized his name but had no idea he would ultimately make a huge donation.
“I was hoping to raise a few hundred dollars that day by the generosity of my community for the stem cell treatment that I needed to get,” she said. “I had no idea I would meet Ty Warner that day.”
On her blog, Vasilakos wrote: “I listened as he repeated over and over that he was going to help me. That my fundraising was done. That I didn’t need to worry any longer. He said he would send a check after he returned to his offices during the week.”
Several days after they met, Vasilakos received a $20,000 check from Warner along with a handwritten note. She said she hopes it “was a little birdy in his ear that said, ‘You should help this woman.’”
Vasilakos had the stem cell treatment last year in Trinidad.
Warner, according to a prepared statement, was enlightened by their chance encounter.
"After I serendipitously met Jennifer, I further educated myself on her stem cell needs. I was shocked that this particular type of treatment wasn't available to her in the U.S.," Warner said. "My hope is that we can bring this lifesaving treatment to the forefront so that it can become more readily available and provide alternatives for people like Jennifer."
Vasilakos underwent the treatment in September 2012 and now, after months of recovery, she says she feels great.
"The day the length of my dialysis treatment was reduced to two and half hours per treatment was an exciting day. I regained three hours of freedom per month! My blood pressure has dropped down to normal with lower and lower levels of medication," she wrote recently on her blog. "The biggest change is how amazing I feel, and I am brimming with energy. My immune system has become resilient, and I can feel the difference in my body."