John D’ Avanzo has been fighting prostate cancer for the past eight years.
“I should have been dead six years ago, according to the doctors,” said D’ Avanzo, manager of Pulcinella restaurant in McLean since 1994. To D’ Avanzo, that is the secondary reason for getting involved in the April 19 Growing Hope Benefit Swing into Spring Gala.
The primary reason for D’ Avanzo’s involvement is due to his godson’s son, diagnosed with cancer five years ago at age two. “The parents were literally camped out at the hospital in their son’s room and their son wasn’t eating. I asked him what he liked to eat and he said spaghetti, so I brought pizza and pasta on a regular basis,” he said.
When the restaurant celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1998 they wanted to raise money for a charity and D’ Avanzo suggested Growing Hope. “We fed over 1,500 people for free and raised over $20,000 by selling raffles. We raffled off a trip for two to Italy donated by the owners Sal and Joan Esposito” of McLean, said D’ Avanzo.
Currently D’ Avanzo, also a volunteer in the pediatric ward of Fairfax Inova Hospital, is selling tickets to the upcoming Growing Hope Gala.
THE GROWING HOPE Foundation began in late 1997, in part by Round Hill resident Mary Nielsen’s desire to make life easier for her daughter Karen Nielsen who endured five years of treatments for neuroblastoma before dying from the cancer in 1998 at age 10.
Neuroblastoma is a cancer that attacks the adrenal glands, said Reston resident Diane Schuler, co-chairman of the Growing Hope Gala. Schuler’s son Michael Schuler, 1, was treated for the cancer and had a tumor successfully removed.
"The discovery was a fluke,” said Schuler, a future Great Falls homeowner. “He was in Reston Hospital for a routine kidney reflux exam. His kidneys were fine, but a huge mass was found on his adrenal glands.”
Schuler’s son, at five-months-old, underwent the kidney reflux exam because her daughter, Kirsten, 2, takes antibiotics for that condition. “Michael lost one of his two adrenal glands, but kept his kidneys,” said Schuler.
“This was one of those times where you make a deal with God. My son had this cancer and I said I would help raise money. I have nothing to do with the foundation,” she said.
The Growing Hope Foundation works with parents and children. It provides books and literature to educate families about the cancer. There are parent-to-parent training groups where veteran parents can help rookie parents understand what to expect, said Nielsen.
There are the activities for the children, as well, she said. We have picnics, pizza days, trips to the circus, Kings Dominion, arts and crafts and Nintendo to make their days better while they’re here at the doctor’s office, said Nielsen, a clinical research associate at the medical office of Dr. Jay Greenberg in Fairfax.
Greenberg, director of pediatric oncology at Fairfax Hospital, operates his office of Pediatric Hematology in Oncology of Northern Virginia, where Michael Schuler visits for follow up MRIs every three months.
“My daughter, at her sickest, just counted down the days for the circus. She really knew how to live. I do this as a tribute to my daughter,” said Nielsen, who stressed that Growing Hope is run solely by volunteers.
“OUR GOAL is to raise awareness about the foundation and sell tickets to the event,” said Schuler. “This has never been done before. We have over 30 women from McLean and Great Falls to help put this together,” said Schuler, whose husband Thomas Schuler runs the Virginia Spine Institute out of the Reston Hospital, She is one of the benefactors of the gala having donated $5,000.
“This is a local charity and we are making a difference,” said McLean resident Cindy Bapst. “The women are from the same area and have really embraced this. We’ve had very fortunate lives – it’s a chance to give back. People have been enthusiastic about donating time,” said Bapst, helping to garner the silent auction items.
Silent auction items have been provided by Tiffany’s, Hermes, The Palm, Neiman Marcus, a life-sized doll house from Engle Homes of Northern Virginia and Pulcinella, said Bapst. “And we’re still working on it,” she said.
“An anonymous customer from McLean donated two tickets to Italy for the silent auction,” said D’ Avanzo. “It’s all about the kids,” he said.
“I like that it’s a children’s charity,” said 21-year Great Falls resident Sandy Crippen, a retired elementary school teacher. “Many of these girls have never done a gala or volunteer work – I’m serving as an advisor – to put them in contact with others who have. All the girls are volunteers and every cent of the money goes to the charity. This should be stressed,” said Crippen. “It’s just wonderful. The President has asked us to volunteer and they’re doing it. I know it will be a successful gala. It’s a great charity,” she said.