South Side entrepreneur turns breakup into a chance to help heal others

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PITTSBURGH - When Phil Laboon's engagement broke up, he decided to make LemonAID out of the lemons life had handed him. 

The Baldwin native, who lives and works on the South Side, was set to be married Aug. 31 and have the reception at the Priory Hotel on the North Side. But when the wedding was suddenly called off, for reasons he chooses not to disclose, he decided to turn it into a charity event. 

Laboon said he prepaid  all of the wedding expenses, including the $15,000 to $20,000 for the reception. When he and his fiancee split recently, Laboon says he was heartbroken, but didn't want to cancel the Priory event, and hoped to help people somehow.

“I decided instead of just letting it go to waste at the last minute ... we just tried to come up with an idea real quick,” says Laboon, 32, who is the chief executive officer of Eyeflow Internet Marketing, an online marketing company.

“It's a pretty last-minute, crazy thing,” he says. The wedding fallout hurt, but “you know — lemons and lemonade.”

Laboon decided to keep his reservations for the event — including the food, alcohol and music — just minus the wedding part, and he changed the menu from a sit-down dinner to a feast of appetizers.

Laboon is selling tickets at $75 apiece and donating 100 percent of the proceeds to Surgicorps International, a Glenshaw-based nonprofit composed of physicians who provide free surgeries and other medical care for mostly children in developing countries. Laboon's company has supported the charity for years, he says.

Surgicorps began in 1994, when founder Dr. Jack Demos was running his plastic-surgery practice at Allegheny Center on the North Side. Surgicorps has provided medical screening to more than 8,000 patients and performed more than 4,000 surgeries in 17 countries in the past 20 years, says Demos, who retired from his practice six years ago to focus on the charity. Surgicorps mostly focuses on people in Vietnam, Bhutan, Guatemala and Zambia, and, next year, the doctors will add Uganda and Honduras to their agenda.

“My reaction? Wow,” Demos says. “I give him all the credit in the world for taking a less-than-ideal situation and making it into a potential circumstance where he can really give back or say, ‘Look, I'm down, but I'm not out, and I'm going to use this opportunity to help those who have a lot worse circumstances than I have.' ”

It would have been so easy for Laboon to walk away and just cancel the event, says Demos of Fox Chapel.

“We are honored to be selected as the charity that will benefit from this event ... and very, very thankful.”

Word of LemonAID spread quickly through social media. Even Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto posted about the event on Facebook and Twitter, and he donated a raffle prize: lunch with the mayor and three friends, Laboon says. He has received numerous donated raffle prizes, including trips to Cancun and Walt Disney World.

“It's amazing how much support we've gotten,” Laboon says. “We're just trying to keep up with it.

When Channel 11 News shared Laboon’s story on the WPXI-TV Pittsburgh Facebook page, it only took minutes for the story to gain attention. In just 24 hours, the post had reached 1 million people.

 “Our goal was to sell 100 tickets at $75 each. Now we’re getting tens of thousands of likes and shares and emails and messages. It’s overwhelming. Almost to the point where we don’t know what to do,” said Laboon. 

For more information on Laboon's LemonAID fundrasier, CLICK HERE. 

Channel 11's news exchange partners at TribLIVE contributed to this report.