Life for Gina raises fund for pediatric cancer research

Charity honors SSHS graduate

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September was pediatric cancer awareness month, and Rockville Centre-based group the Life for Gina Foundation continued its work to help affected families. Late last month, it partnered with the village and Mary Ruchalski Foundation for a tree lighting at village hall to spread awareness for the lack of funds currently going into pediatric cancer research.

The foundation was created by in memory of former South Side High School student Gina Giallombardo, who died from cancer at 22 in 2011.

Giallombardo’s family runs the foundation as a way to help families and keep Gina’s memory alive after she lost her battle with rhabdomyosarcoma. This year the foundation gave a $1,500 check to the Madalato family to help 2-year-old Jesus Madalato, who has Stage 4 neuroblastoma. It has also provided an annual scholarship to a South Side High graduate in Gina’s name each year since 2013, to help with college expenses. This year’s awardee, Kim Kraeling, and her father have both dealt with cancer.

Gina’s sister, Janice Davidson, and their parents, Sal and Marie Giallombardo, started the foundation in 2009 to help pay for Gina’s medical expenses. Though Sal died in 2018, the family has kept the foundation going. After Gina died, Davidson said, the organization started giving donations to the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s Pediatric Unit, where her sister was treated.

Gina was at school at Manhattan College when she began feeling pain in her back, which led to her diagnosis. She died 19 months later. The experience at Sloan Kettering, Davidson said, made Gina want to enter the medical field and help children going through similar struggles.

“Gina was a large loss for us, and she really inspired me,” Davidson said. “She always was smiling, and had a personality like you wouldn’t believe.”

In its 12-year history, the Life for Gina Foundation has made donations to St. Baldrick’s and the Ronald McDonald House of Long Island in memory of the children who suffer from the various forms of pediatric cancer. The foundation recently donated a Barbie Dream House to the Ronald McDonald House, where Gina went at times during her treatment.

Davidson is a social worker now, and occasionally deals with situations similar to what she went through with her sister. “To use Gina’s memory to help others is just amazing,” she said, “and that’s what keeps my family going.”

Davidson credited her parents with getting the foundation off the ground and helping it grow. According to the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation, only 4 percent of government spending on cancer research is directed to childhood cancer, and that is something Davidson and the foundation are hoping to change.

She said her family also hopes that working with Carol Ruchalski, of the Mary Ruchalski Foundation, can help raise awareness of that lack of funding. The Mary Ruchalski Foundation was created in the name of a Rockville Centre girl who died of cancer when she was 12. In September, the two foundations and the village hosted a tree-lighting, with gold lights calling attention to the need for more funding of pediatric cancer research.

Those in situations similar to Gina’s, Davidson said, should never lose faith. “Believe,” she said. “That’s all you can do when you’re faced with such a horrible illness.”

The foundation’s annual Life for Gina Fundraiser will take place on March 5 at Kasey’s Kitchen and Cocktails in Rockville Centre. There, attendees are asked to wear “silly socks” in memory of the ones Gina wore during her treatment, which brought joy to the other children in the pediatric unit. It helped them “keep smiling,” Davidson said, which was Gina’s motto during her ordeal. The money donated at the charity event will fund the foundation’s work.

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