Staten Island-based Kids Against Cancer helps build a dedicated unit for the treatment of pediatric oncology patients at Staten Island University Hospital
by Jessica Jones-Gorman • Photos by Amessé Photography
When 30-year-old Michael Grillo was suffering from testicular cancer, his body and spirit both weak and weary, he wandered through his hospital’s corridors to find solace from his treatment. Stumbling upon the pediatric unit, Grillo witnessed the ailments of dozens of children, as well as the hardships of their families who were trying to cope. At that moment, he made a pledge to return and offer support.
“He beat his own cancer and returned the very next holiday season with a trunk full of toys, one for every kid at Sloane Kettering where he was treated,” noted Mark Russo, chairman of Kids Against Cancer, the non-profit which was the eventual result of Grillo’s efforts. “He wanted to do something for these children who were going through so much, and for Mike, that was the first logical step.”
Grillo, a court officer, donned a Santa suit and hat and went bed to bed, greeting kids and their families, offering small gifts (that he paid for himself) and a little bit of cheer. The following year, he held a couple of local toy drives and expanded the event to include Staten Island hospitals.
“His was the ultimate grassroots story,” Russo said. “He went all over collecting toys and handing them out in the days and weeks leading up to the holidays. When local businessmen heard about his efforts, the idea started to gain traction. Suddenly, more and more community members got involved.”
Grillo caught the attention of several Island business owners: Lenny Rampulla, Chris Rubano, Tom Beyer, and Mark DeMeno among them. Each new volunteer brought a different skill set to the table, allowing Grillo to take his idea from the back of his Chevy to something more structured. Kids Against Cancer was officially born.
“This group of gentlemen helped Mike get a copyright and logo, helped him write up bylaws, and just brought the organization up to speed,” Russo said. “We enlisted the help of the MTA, and the city gave a dedicated bus adorned with lights and ornaments to collect toy donations. It would go from depot to depot and collect toys all across the city, so we were able to deliver hundreds instead of just dozens.”
The gradually-growing organization then decided to expand the venture beyond the holiday season, placing small loose change containers in delis and bagel stores across the borough and hosting car washes and other smallish fundraisers.
“The financial expenses for families experiencing childhood cancer can be extreme,” Russo said. “In addition to the hardship of having a sick child, there are hospital bills and so many other unforeseen costs: gas, tolls, parking…the logistics of just getting your child to the hospital for treatment can be intense, so we wanted to raise money for individual families to help ease some of the burden.”
Identifying recipients through a network of family and friends, as well as recommendations from local hospitals, Kids Against Cancer helped provide necessary funds to families who could no longer afford their children’s care. When a second grader at St. Patrick’s School was diagnosed with leukemia and hospital costs nearly bankrupted the family, the organization stepped in to offer scholarships and paid for a variety of supplementary expenses. When a 16-year-old patient dreamed of seeing a Broadway play for her birthday, the group hired a limo and made that wish come true.
“These are things that families battling this disease should not have to worry about,” added Russo. “If there’s something we can do to make someone’s life a little easier or to bring a smile to the face of sick child, we’ll do it.”
And after more than 30 years of helping children smile again, Kids Against Cancer is now building a dedicated unit for the treatment of pediatric oncology patients at Staten Island University Hospital.
“One of Mike’s early ambitions was to build a facility for children suffering from cancer here on Staten Island,” noted Lenny Rampulla, owner of Rampulla Associates Architects in New Dorp, and one of the directors of Kids Against Cancer. “Now, together with Staten Island University Hospital, we are making that happen.”
A former hospice unit on the hospital’s Seaview campus, the 5,500 square feet of dedicated space
is currently being renovated to encompass childfriendly treatment areas and a spacious play area.
“It’s a very unstructured play area, with walls full of video displays, an area for patients to dance, and a floor-to-ceiling fish tank with holes and openings that will make the children feel as though they’re right inside of it,” Rampulla said. “There’s shelves for comic books and toys, the ceiling is adorned with clouds, and the whole space is swathed in spiritually uplifting colors and fabrics.”
Made possible by a number of donors and volunteers (“I want to personally thank all Staten Islanders for donating all of their loose change at those delis. You’d be surprised how far those simple donations go,” Rampulla said), the center should be complete by the end of the year.
“It’s a compelling story—how this unit, which was formerly a hospice, became a vibrant center, where sick children can come to breathe new life,” Russo said. “Dr. Sarah Vaiselbuh [medical director of the Children’s Cancer Center at SIUH], who has been instrumental in helping us design and create this space, has chosen the butterfly as the theme and mascot of pediatric oncology, because children who are in this cocoon of cancer rise out of it as butterflies.”
SIUH has put its full support behind Kids Against Cancer, recognizing that the group’s mission needed to extend beyond making monetary donations to families in need.
“This unit is for the ongoing treatment of children,” Russo said. “And we will continue to accept donations for its advancement. Treatments morph and change regularly, and the hospital has been so wonderfully flexible and adaptable. Not only are we responsible for building this unit, we are also committed to maintaining and improving upon it.”
The organization, which has raised in excess of $1.5 million to date, is planning a comedy show at the St. George Theater as well as an evening of fundraising at the Richmond County Bank Ballpark.
“Every penny and every ounce of time and energy that people donate is so significant to our cause,” Russo concluded. “This is a wonderful and unfortunately necessary center for the people of this borough. It is our goal to provide these kids and their families with absolutely everything they could want or need.”
Kids Against Cancer
PO Box 140-299, Staten Island, NY 10314 / 718.981.1076 / kidsagainstcancer.org