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Cassella Foundation Runs Third Annual 5K

Event raises $45,000 for family of 1-year-old with liver cancer.

Runners take off from the finish line at the start of the third annual Joe Cassella 5K in Great Falls Sunday, May 20.

Runners take off from the finish line at the start of the third annual Joe Cassella 5K in Great Falls Sunday, May 20. Photo by Alex McVeigh.

— In her year on the Earth, Gianna Hess has already been through more than enough medical procedures. She was diagnosed with hepatoblastoma, a rare form of liver cancer, and on Feb. 21 had a biopsy done, which confirmed that the cancer had spread, in the form of three lung nodules.

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Affie Ambrose of Reston crosses the finish line with a time of 20:52, the best women’s time, at the third annual Joe Cassella 5K in Great Falls Sunday, May 20.

Three days later, Gianna Hess began chemotherapy at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to shrink the liver tumor enough so it can be removed. During treatment, Gianna’s father Travis, a math teacher and Boys Varsity Basketball Coach at Langley High School, stepped down from his coaching position.

Suzanne Hess, a fifth grade teacher at John Adams Elementary School in Alexandria, recently stepped down from her job to care for Gianna and the couple’s son, who was born premature.

On Sunday, May 20, the Hess family was presented with $45,000, money raised at the third annual Joe Cassella 5K in Great Falls.

"I usually avoid talking about what it’s been like to work with the Joe Cassella Foundation, because it’s just so hard to put into words without getting emotional about what they’ve done," Travis Hess said. "To see so many people out here to support us, it’s just overwhelming."

The foundation is named after the founder of Elite Fitness Concepts who passed away in 2009 at the age of 40 from mesothelioma [See the story, Page 13].

Every year for the past three years, the foundation has gathered hundreds to run to raise money for families of ill children in the area. The first year they had almost 500 runners, this year it was more than 900.

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Suzanne Hess and her 1-year-old daughter Gianna. Gianna Hess has a rare form of liver cancer, and the third annual Joe Cassella 5K raised $45,000 for the Hess family Sunday, May 20.

"Bad things happen. Gianna has a tough battle ahead of her, and we’ve lost Joe, but we’ve shown for the past three years that something good can come out of the bad," said Pat DeRocco, Cassella’s brother-in-law. "This event is to celebrate a great life and give another an assist."

After running the 3.2 miles around the neighborhood south of the Great Falls Village Centre, runners and their supporters could bid on auction items, enjoy refreshments and even enjoy a massage, courtesy of the Northern Virginia School of Massage.

"I love running, and I always like doing it for charity, but I’ve never had the luxury of a readily available massage after my morning run," said Stephanie Douglas of Falls Church. "It was just an amazing event for a good cause, and we get treated so well as runners it’s truly a pleasure to participate. I’ll be back as long as they have one."

The Gianna Hess team, which contained many members from John Adams Elementary School won the award for most team participation, and members of the Langley lacrosse and basketball teams, fresh from prom night, also showed up to support.

"At events like this, you can just feel the good feelings in the air, its tangible in everyone you see and everyone you talk to," said Fred Engle of Vienna, who came to watch his daughter and son-in-law run. "I’m so astounded by the vibe here, I just know this is a group of people that are truly dedicated to doing some good."

More information on the Joe Cassella Foundation can be found at www.joecassellafoundation.org.