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Celebrating a quarter century of helping kids be kids

By: Jessica Meszaros


ON THE COVER: Founding members of Friends of Kids with Cancer [from left] Ben Turec, Jill Turec, Molly Henry, Rick Henry, Marianne Bergamini and Bob Bergamini at the 25th anniversary celebration. [Jessica Meszaros photo]

Friends of Kids with Cancer takes having a packed schedule to a whole new level – all in the name of helping kids, something it’s excelled at for 25 years.

In just one weekend, the organization celebrated its 25th anniversary with a gala in Chesterfield on June 10, invited more than 300 current patients and their families to a Cardinals baseball game on June 11, and benefited from the sixth annual Seamus McDaniel’s Sunday Cookout in Dogtown, which also was on June 11 and last year raised around $14,000.

“This is one of the best organizations because people are never afraid to roll up their sleeves and offer a hand,” said Friends board member Tom Russo, who is the executive chef of Russo’s Catering and food truck manager for Russo’s Trucktoria.

Russo is one of about 40 board members who serve in various ways to assist the local nonprofit. The organization also has one part-time and five full-time staff members. But volunteers and supporters number well into the hundreds.

An educational program where Tom “Tom the Tutor” Mulvihill works with a patient and sibling while they receive treatment. [Photo courtesy of Judy Ciapciak]

The celebration on June 10 was held to thank them all. Also attending the event were cancer survivors who benefited from the organization’s aid and have returned to help.

One of those “grown-up kids” is Andrew Dillard, who graduated from De Smet Jesuit High and is en route to Missouri State University this fall. Dillard has been cancer-free for 10 years after being diagnosed in second grade with acute lymphoblastic leukemia [ALL]. He stayed involved with Friends by volunteering with the organization’s annual Fashion Show & Boutique and the Camp Rainbow program.

While undergoing treatment at Mercy Children’s Hospital, Dillard was under the care of Dr. Robert “Bob” Bergamini and also received support from Friends co-founder Jill Turec, who was a developmental specialist at Mercy Clinic Children’s Cancer and Hematology Center.

“I always thought the organization had a lot of potential,” Dillard said. “Now, I’m experiencing everything from the other side.”

Survivor and volunteer Andrew Dillard and volunteer Lauren Vanlandingham at the 25th anniversary event on June 10. [Jessica Meszaros photo]

When the organization began 25 years ago, the group had less than 10 volunteers and mainly handed out toys. Its inaugural Toy Closet program started in 1992 in the office of Bergamini, who was Mercy Clinic’s chief of pediatric hematology and oncology.

“Our first office was in my dining room, and then it was pretty much a closet before we settled in our current office space in Creve Coeur,” Friends co-founder Molly Henry said.

Staff and board members at the 25th anniversary event on June 10. [Jessica Meszaros photo]

It’s all about the kids

According to Bergamini, the reason behind the group’s constant growth is simple: the group has maintained the constant focus of helping kids, teens and families.

“There was a patient’s boyfriend who wrote a poem, and in it, he wrote about all the things that cancer had taken from not just his girlfriend, but from her entire family,” Bergamini said. “He wrote about lost dance lessons, soccer practices and recitals. The diagnosis affects the whole family, and medicine is geared towards treating the cancer, not treating the child.”

According to Friends Executive Director Judy Ciapciak, even as the organization grows, it keeps its overhead very low – spending every dollar possible on helping more kids and their families. For example, Friends budgeted about $30,000 for The Young Survivors and The Bobby Orf #17 scholarships in 2016. But when 29 kids applied, the organization requested, and its board granted, a $37,000 budget amendment so that all the applicants could receive scholarships.

“We rarely increase funds for the operating budget, but when it comes to getting the money for kids and families, we find a way,” Ciapciak said.

2016 Golf Tournament co-chairs Rick Lommel and Bob Nuelle with honorary guest patient, Jubi. [Photo courtesy of Judy Ciapciak]

Some of those ways include a full schedule of upcoming events, including the organization’s eighth annual Art from the Heart event to be held from 5:30-8:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 14 at Mungenast Lexus St. Louis, 13700 Manchester Road in Manchester.

Art from the Heart is a special fundraiser that centers around the auction of more than 60 pieces of art created by St. Louis kids with cancer. Art therapist Natasha Westrich-Wood works with those kids throughout the year on art for the fundraiser.

“The kids are so excited to have a means to give back. They are very aware of how much Friends of Kids with Cancer does for them,” Westrich-Wood said.

The Art from the Heart event includes live music, wine and art – and 100 percent of the proceeds benefit Friends of Kids with Cancer’s art therapy program. Reservations can be made online at www.friendsofkids.com.

“The kids are so inspirational,” said Rick Henry, husband of founder Molly Henry. “They are really the driving force of the charity and have always been our focus.”

A participant in the 2016 Art from the Heart event at Dave Mungenast Lexus of St. Louis. [Photo courtesy of Judy Ciapciak]

Looking forward to the next 25

While bittersweet for some, the anniversary event celebrated a new generation of individuals brought together by the organization, literally and figuratively.

“My oldest son, James, is a Young Friends board member, and he met his wife while volunteering for Friends,” board member Marianne Bergamini said. “Now, they are having a baby the day of the 25th anniversary. It’s come full circle for us.”

For some, the quarter-century celebration was difficult. It served as a reminder of family members and individuals who lost their battles with cancer. Ellen Henry, daughter of Molly and Rick, was among those remembered at the event and whose passing inspired Friends’ founding. So was Jessica Johnson, who passed away after a four-and-a-half-year battle with cancer in 2005. Jessica is the daughter of Vicki Johnson, who chaired the celebration. Joining her on the event committee were Russo and Ciapciak, along with Cheryl Lawless, Mary Lynne Wilson and Cathy Costello.

As the organization looks toward the future, its biggest goal is growth – that of its programs and volunteer base and also of its headquarters to accommodate its burgeoning team.

“Our next mission is to expand into a new office,” Molly Henry said. “Our current office is about 2,800 square feet, and it’s getting a little cramped.”

While in the process of looking for a permanent home, the organization’s proceeds and programs continue to maintain a broad focus on tending to families and helping kids with cancer be kids.

“The focus has always been children with cancer,” Turec said. “That is never forgotten by our board members or volunteers.”

Cardinals mascot Fredbird at Friends of Kids with Cancer’s Annual Walk/Run. [Photo courtesy of Judy Ciapciak]

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