MANATEE — Eleven-year-old Rachael Jaworski has a friend in Maggie Wheeler.
Wheeler, best known as the nasally Janice Litman from the hit TV show “Friends,” will be the featured guest during “A Conversation with a ‘Friend’” at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Held at Braden River High School, the event will help raise funds for Jaworski’s recovery from ruptured AVMs — arterial venous malformations — in her brain. The rare condition, which left the Lakewood Ranch preteen with memory loss, occurs when a group of veins and arteries tangle and then rupture.
“She has no memory — hour by hour, day by day,” said Rachael’s mom, Wendy, 48.
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Rachael has struggled with the condition, which came out of nowhere, since last December. She has spent four months in hospitals, dealing with feeding tubes, facial paralysis and speech and physical therapy, said her mom. Now back at home and improving, she still has more recovery hurdles to get through.
But her family is thankful Rachael’s come this far.
The community has stepped up in various ways — including hosting a series of fundraisers — to help with mounting medical expenses. Though insurance has covered much of the more than $1 million in medical care, healthcare costs have still been high. “It’s not that we are calling people saying ‘Help, we need money,’ ” Wendy Jaworski said. “People out of the goodness of their hearts are reaching out.”
That’s how Wheeler came into the picture. When local resident Maureen Flaherty heard about the Jaworski family’s battle to get their daughter back to normal, she called her longtime friend Wheeler.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Wheeler said last week during a phone interview from her Los Angeles home. “I hope lots of people come out. The Jaworskis can use tremendous support. So I’m excited to gather the community to that end.”
The event will feature film and TV highlights from Wheeler’s career, a Q&A with the audience and music. Proceeds will be split between the Jaworski family, Wheeler and Little Bookworms — a store in Lakewood Ranch selling tickets for the event.
Wheeler has been featured in guest spots on a host of TV shows including “How I Met Your Mother,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Ellen” and “Doogie Howser, M.D.” But she struck comic gold playing Chandler’s girlfriend on “Friends.” The role, made famous by Wheeler’s trademark “Oh! My! Gaaad!” outburst and laugh, was meant for one episode. But the producers and crew loved her in the role so much that they brought her back for nearly 20 episodes.
“It was all around a fantastic experience,” said Wheeler, whose voice has been featured on a number of cartoons, including the series “Lilo & Stitch.” “They were great people to work with, an amazing collaborative work environment, the energy in that cast was the kind of magic that doesn’t come around that often. It was a great high to get the phone call that Janice was going to return.”
Wheeler also wowed the cast and crew of “Everybody Loves Raymond” in her role as Linda Gruenfelder — a family friend of Ray and Debra’s.
The actress said she initially read for the role of Debra on the show. When she didn’t get the role, she was offered the part of Linda. She did 11 episodes.
Wheeler, a mother of 10- and 15-year-old girls, also has a passion for folk and gospel music. She plans to lead the audience in a few inspirational songs during the event.
One of her favorite groups is a Grammy award-winning a cappella ensemble called “Sweet Honey in the Rock.” The group inspired her to teach a cappella classes and eventually co-direct the Golden Bridge Community Choir in Los Angeles.
“It really altered the course of my life in many ways,” said Wheeler, who met one of the members of Sweet Honey in the Rock while attending one of their workshops. “I was in the presence of a masterful teacher. I saw what it was to teach and what it was like to be able to give that gift. That really shaped me.”
Besides music, Hollywood has shaped the actress, too — in an equally good way.
Acting was something Wheeler’s parents didn’t want her to go into initially, she said. Now they enjoy seeing Wheeler pop up as various characters on TV.
“With the success of “Friends” and how much joy all that laughter brought into people’s lives, I think that they certainly experienced the ripple effect of having a daughter who played such an annoyingly memorable character,” she said.
January Holmes, features writer, can be reached at 745-7057. Follow her on Twitter at @accentbradenton.