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Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Part of Something Bigger: A mighty team of friends make Cripple Creek a special event because of a man with a meaningful mission

On any given day, the field behind the Blue Barn on Orphanage Road in Fort Mitchell is a wide, rolling swath of green, skirted by a quiet canopy of trees. But on a Saturday evening in early October, when at long last fall was ready to commit with a subtle crispness in the air, melodies flowed and pulsed from a stage that was surrounded by friends, neighbors, and strangers who were drawn to a man who, along with his friends, has put song to a cause by way of the annual Cripple Creek Music Festival.

In 2015, life’s trajectory shifted for Tom Miller, when he was diagnosed with ALS, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. But Miller, an attorney, husband, and father, was not so much derailed as he was put on a course to make a difference.

Cripple Creek Music Festival founder Tom Miller with some of the folks who help make Cripple Creek happen. Photo Credit: Michael Klare.
Forced to retire from his legal practice not long after his diagnosis, Miller was determined to give something extraordinary in the lives of children who have a parent diagnosed with ALS. In 2018, he founded Winning with ALS, a charitable/educational non-profit support for families with children still in the home who are living with a parent diagnosed with ALS. Through grants, Winning with ALS provides financial support that enables the children to continue participating in camps, sports, school activities, the arts, and other areas that provide respite. The non-profit also helps families navigate their searches for available drug trials and compassionate use programs, and information on understanding Medicare.

Miller, who appreciates good music, developed Cripple Creek Music Festival along with a team of volunteers whose commitment to cause may well be unrivaled, and is based in their deep friendship with Miller.

Bob Lee, one of Winning with ALS’s founding board members, says his friendship with Miller goes back to when he was in junior high at Beechwood where Miller was an upperclassman he looked up to. Years later, they ran in the same circles and “just lived life together,” says Lee.

The 2nd annual Cripple Creek Music Festival attracted more than 1100 people to Fort Mitchell to support children living with a parent diagnosed with ALS.
“Five years ago, when Tom was diagnosed, it was devastating,” says Lee. “But the one person in the group who didn’t hang his head was Tom. At first, we did a couple of fundraisers for the Miller family, but then Tom realized that everyone dealing with ALS was dealing with the same challenges that his family was dealing with. When he pulled his friends together to come up with a plan to help those families out, I was naturally a part of the conversation. In the late 90s, my grandpa was diagnosed with ALS, and it took him quickly, way before his time. So, needless to say, I already had a personal grudge against this awful disease, so when Tom said it was time to work for the people dealing with ALS, I was more than happy to throw a few punches back at the disease that routinely beats the hell out of its opponents.”

Lee says he thinks Miller finds a mix of joy, peace, and satisfaction in leading a charge that makes that sobering reality a little bit easier for the children of the people dealing with the same deck of cards that he has been dealt.

Crowds enjoyed good music, food, libations, and friendship at Cripple Creek. Photo Credit: Michael Klare.
In 2018, the inaugural Cripple Creek Music Festival delivered Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe as its headliner.

Jamie Lusk, also a Winning with ALS founding board member, and longtime friend of the Millers, says a lot goes into planning Cripple Creek.

“The first year, we had about six months to pull it together, and we did,” says Lusk. “This year was a little different. We had a blueprint and full calendar year to implement. With the first year under our belt, we were able to focus on new initiatives to help improve the overall experience.”

Kia Warren of Revel and Dimes fills the space with song at Cripple Creek. Photo courtesy of Sandra Patterson Combs.
Lusk, who is a vice president of sales and marketing with a software company, tapped into those skills to help with Cripple Creek. He says most of the team of volunteers who make it happen work in the for-profit arena, so they decided early on to run Cripple Creek as a sustainable profitable venture, like any company would. They keep an organizational chart that defines committee leaders, roles, and responsibilities, and empower them to make decisions and execute the vision as the board has set forth. Miller’s wife Andrea leads the committee heads.

“Andrea does an unbelievable job leading all the committee heads and checking off the boxes throughout the year to make sure all details are accounted for,” says Lusk.

 Tom and Andrea Miller on stage at Cripple Creek. Photo Credit: Michael Klare.
Lusk points out that all involved in the planning and execution of Cripple Creek are friends of the Millers.

“Everyone involved is a friend of Tom and Andrea’s. Everyone,” says Lusk. “The diverse nature of the group and the skill sets brought to the table are a testament to the type of people they are. They are gatherers and joiners. Tapping into that is paramount.”

This year, Cripple Creek featured Melvin Seals & JGB, with special guest John Kadlecik, headlining a list of talent that included Revel in Dimes, Casey Campbell Band, Andy King & Dangertown, Magnolia Boulevard, Trauma Illinois, Blue Moon Soup, and Sasha’s Gypsy Trio. The event entertained more than 1,100 guests.

Sandra Patterson Combs and Tom Miller.
Sandra Patterson Combs, a friend of the Millers, made the trip from Maryland to attend Cripple Creek. The event is very meaningful for her.

“What the event means to me is directly related to the sense of community that everything about Fort Mitchell, Winning with ALS, Cripple Creek, and the Miller family embody,” says Combs.

Combs describes her connection with Tom and his wife Andrea as serendipitous, saying that within a week from meeting them felt as if she’d known them her whole life.

“I was loved by both Tom and Andrea – held, supported, fed, included, seen, and heard. Fast forward to Tom’s diagnosis, walking alongside my best friends (and many count these two as their “best!”— it is real!), as they walk out this challenge with grace,” says Combs. “Watching a family who had every reason to circle the wagons and say, “We can’t be that you, or you, or them, anymore,” and instead give even more of their time, talents, energy, and community – this event is what it is because Tom and Andrea Miller have extended from their home out to the larger community.”

Fun for all ages at Cripple Creek.
Cripple Creek, says Combs, is essentially an extension of the welcoming comfort that the Miller home long offered to many.

“A place where there is enough love to go around – a place where those who need a meal, a smile, a cry, a quiet porch to be lifted by good music can come and smile in the midst of the chaos – Cripple Creek Music Festival is truly an extension of the best porch in Fort Mitchell, the Miller’s porch,” says Combs.

That sense of community is at the very marrow of Cripple Creek.

“The sense of community is everything to us,” says Lusk. “We are a family full of love; yes, the pressure of Cripple Creek can cause some interesting moments, and let’s say, intense discussions, but at the end of the day we are all committed to the same goal.”

Tom and Andrea Miller enjoying the music at Cripple Creek Music Festival.
That goal, Lusk says, it to provide financial assistance for the purpose of normalcy in the lives of children in a home with a parental ALS diagnosis.

“Any success we achieve is because we think and act with the goal in mind at all times,” says Lusk. “It’s easy to rally around our cause when you see how it impacts the children and the families we provide grants to.”

Lusk says they increasingly learn about new patients and that they seem to be “younger and younger.

Musician and northern Kentucky native Andy King performs at Cripple Creek.
“That puts a spotlight squarely on Tom’s mission and his legacy,” says Lusk. “We will do everything we can to grow our reach and provide as much normalcy as possible for these children, in the name of Winning with ALS, Inc., Fort Mitchell and the greater Cincinnati community, love, and Tom Miller.”

Lusk describes the deep bond of the Cripple Creek circle as one that can only be developed when overcoming obstacles, achieving goals, and working for a greater good together.

“We have a saying we use as a hashtag in social media -- #BePartofSomethingBigger. Through Cripple Creek we get to develop, share, and experience community and all the positive vibes that go along with that – we share it with everyone that attends,” says Lusk. “It’s our chance to bring others into our world full of love, gratitude, and good times. The opportunity to present and produce Cripple Creek is a true passion for all of us. We think that passion is the secret sauce that gives it the sense of community that everyone picks up on. We truly want this to be a community event; family-friendly, something that everyone can count on each year, all for a great cause.

Tom Miller with Fort Mitchell friends Cary Hawes and Eric Schlinger at Cripple Creek.

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