UPDATE: Celebrity Golf Tourney for East Palestine Takes First Swing

POLAND, Ohio – Annika Sorenstam is teeing up a national effort to help East Palestine, where a February train derailment has raised ongoing health and other concerns.

The golfing great is teaming up with her husband, Mike McGee, who is a native of East Palestine and son of PGA Tour champion Jerry McGee; and Ed Muransky, owner of The Muransky Companies, for the Annika Fore East Palestine fundraiser.

The highlight of the fundraising effort will be a May 15 golf tournament at The Lake Club featuring pro golfers and other celebrities.

The effort is in partnership with the Youngstown Mahoning Valley United Way and The Way Station, a nonprofit in Columbiana County that helps people in need. Those organizations will handle the disbursement of money to make sure it gets in the hands of the people and businesses who need it most.

“Mike and I wanted to do something to help his hometown during this time of need, and Ed was his first call. He’s very philanthropic and ran with the idea,” Sorenstam said. “East Palestine is a close-knit community, and I enjoyed my many visits there over the years. We even had both of our kids baptized there and held our receptions at the Lake Club [in Poland] afterward, so this fundraiser brings us full circle.”

On Feb. 3, approximately 50 cars of a Norfolk Southern Railway freight train derailed and erupted in flames in the Columbiana County village. Ten of the cars held hazardous materials, including vinyl chloride, a highly volatile gas. The disaster has made global headlines and temporarily forced the evacuation of residents. Cleanup and environmental testing have been ongoing. 

The fundraising campaign will offer people across the country a chance to contribute directly to the effort. Money, materials and other items can be donated through the official website, AnnikaForeEastPalestine.com. Those who want to volunteer or become a sponsor can also find information there.

The names of celebrities participating in the golf event will be released on the website as they become known.

“So many of us, both here in the region and well beyond, have been captivated by what we’re seeing on the news about the tragedy in our backyard of East Palestine and are searching for meaningful ways to support our neighbors there,” said Muransky, whose portfolio of companies includes Southwoods Health and Auntie Anne’s Pretzels. “Annika and Mike have a special connection to East Palestine and want to do something special to help. We trust that our respective networks of friends, colleagues and former competitors, as well as the community at-large will also want to be part of this.”

Muransky said the public is welcome to participate, either as donors, by attending the May 15 event, or simply by lending a spirit of support.

How It Started

Speaking at a virtual press conference Thursday morning, Sorenstam said the idea to do something to help East Palestine arose shortly after she and McGee found out about the derailment.

They decided on a golf tournament because, “that’s what we do,” she said. “Mike called his good friend [Muransky] and he jumped on the opportunity.”

The pro golf season is now underway, but Sorenstam said she will reach out to golfers and celebrities who might be available to participate. “We’re going to show this community some love and support,” she said.

For McGee, the tragedy in his hometown is personal.

“I grew up in East Palestine, right behind the high school,” he said. “My mom also grew up there and taught at the middle school for over 20 years. My father played in the PGA tour and could have lived anywhere [but lived in East Palestine]. He always said that [after landing at Pittsburgh International Airport] as soon as he crossed over into town, he felt peace and calm.”

McGee said he last visited East Palestine about a year ago. He and Sorenstam live in Florida.

They were in Portugal for a golf tournament she was playing in when they first heard the news.

“My sister sent me a text to say, ‘did you see what is happening in East Palestine,’ and my heart just sank,” he said.

“You feel for everybody there … the uncertainty. I know if I lived there, I’d be wondering if it’s safe. Am I breathing toxic chemicals? What about my kids, my future?”

Sorenstam said it’s important the townsfolk know they are not alone.

“When you watch the news, you hear them say, ‘nobody cares about East Palestine,” she said. One of her goals is to let the citizens know that people do care.

The Way Station will be “the ones on the ground” in the village to get the money to those who need it most, said McGee. The priorities, he said, include moving expenses, expedited soil and water cleanup, and of course, plenty of bottled water.

Muransky pointed out that businesses in the village are also struggling and need more shoppers.

“We need to take the law firms and the politicians out of this and allow the people of East Palestine to take a deep breath and know that there are people behind them,” he said. “I’m interested in getting the answers and making people whole.”

While it typically takes a year to put together a golf event of this magnitude, Muransky said it will get done with the help of the team he has assembled.

He said he made dozens of calls to recruit people for the effort, and not one has refused. “It’s a group of people putting this together,” he said. “We’re going to have some fun that day.”

Pictured at top: Annika Sorenstam and her husband, Mike McGee, along with their children, William and Ava.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.