Il Sogno di Iaia
On a cold wintery day in late January, I received an email from a trusted friend in Italy, Goffredo Palmerini.
He wrote to me about a six year old child, whose parents were from Abruzzo. Her father was from Lanciano and her mother from Roccaraso. She was born in Bergamo. This little girl was afflicted with neuroblastoma. A childhood cancer. He wrote of this sad and tragic situation that touched me. This child was to arrive in New York City and be treated at Memorial Sloan-Kettering (MSK), the most prominent cancer institute in the United States and possibly the world. He spoke of her illness and how anxious the family was about her condition. She had been getting treatments in Italy, but at this stage, it was time to come to New York for further treatments.
Since I am involved in several Abruzzese organizations and I have worked extensively with the Italian American community, including as President of the Italian Welfare League which helps children such as herself many years ago, maybe I could offer some help. My answer was an immediate “yes”. He mentioned to me that her case was becoming particularly renowned among the Abruzzesi. For some reason, her illness had touched hearts and souls. There were fundraisers everywhere to help this little child.
I went online and searched, not only about her illness, neuroblastoma but her case in particular. Neuroblastoma, according to the world-renown Mayo Clinic, is a cancer that develops from immature nerve cells found in several areas of the body. Neuroblastoma most commonly arises in and around the adrenal glands, which have similar origins to nerve cells and sit atop the kidneys. It may also develop in other parts of the body. Neuroblastoma most commonly affects children age 5 or younger, though it rarely occurs in old children. This child was afflicted 2 years ago and had a relapse last summer.
My next step was to find out about the little girl and read what Goffredo was writing about and why there was such interest in her case. I was told there was a website dedicated to her: www.ilsognodiiaia.org. I was taken aback. The title of her website is “The Dream of Iaia”. How poignant, yet a sense of determination to dream that a miracle can happen.
There was so much written about her, the little princess, as they called her. What was most striking was the support of the Abruzzese community. The extraordinary solidarity of her community: from the Regione Abruzzo to the commune of Chieti, Lanciano, and Roccaraso…including many more.
The list of fundraisers went on and on. The videos on YouTube were touching. Everywhere you looked or read, there was something about “Il Sogno di Iaia”. Why would strangers be willing to help? Give their time, energy and money to a little girl they don’t know? I delved more and more and found all these events happening in Abruzzo. Her family’s native home. It was symbolic that her ancestral home region would be the ones who are doing all to save her.
At that point, I knew, that we, the Abruzzesi from Orsogna in New York can do the same thing. We were not given too much time, but there is always an opportunity. On February 7, three days after the family arrived in New York, the Orsogna Mutual Aid Society, our organization which celebrated 75 years of helping our own settle in America, was having our traditional Festa della Prochetta”. I asked the President, Tony Ferrari if I could invite this little girl and her parents to come to our dinner. His answer was “absolutely”. The family was staying at the Ronald McDonald House which is world renown for housing children and their families afflicted with cancer.
The evening started with the usual greetings from the invited guests. Then I spoke to introduce the family. My message was simple: We, as Abruzzesi gather here as a family to celebrate our traditions. Tonight, as usual is our annual coming together, but we have a new family with us. Our goal tonight is to let them know that they are now part of our family. To embrace them.
As the evening progressed, it was becoming more and more apparent that her presence was touching all in the room, all 200 people who came to eat their annual porchetta dinner. Emotions began to run high. Everyone wanted to meet this little girl with an adorable smile, the princess. However, no one knew what to do. Suddenly, our members were coming up to them one at a time and handing them envelopes, business cards, asking what they could do. Everyone wanted to do something. Sarah Tenaglia, the chair of the Women’s committee, who just lost her beloved young nephew to cancer a month earlier became very emotional. She said, “This little girl needs every opportunity for treatments. She needs the hope that she will overcome this.”
Sarah and the rest of the administration decided to hold a raffle. As the committee sold raffles, people were giving their tickets to the family. At the time to call the winning numbers, the mother chose the tickets from the basket. As the winning numbers were called, the winner would come to pick up their winning envelope and turned to the family and handed it to them. We were all surprised, as was the family. There was a stunned silence with people holding their breaths hoping not to cry. Some of the men with tears in their eyes had to walk away from watching this altruistic scene. The feelings were palpable. I had never witness such an emotional response. Tony Ferrari, President of the Orsogna Mutual Aid Society said, “We are a family and they are our family.” Tony Carlucci, Chair of the Events Committee added, “This is why we are here. Not only to help the Abruzzese in New York, but anyone who come through our doors.”
The family was overwhelmed. They did not expect this reaction. This instant generosity was beyond what the family expected. The purpose of the evening was to spend an evening out with other Abruzzesi. Instead, they joined a family in New York that cares and only wants to see their little girl get well and live a full and promising life.
It was an evening not many of us will forget. But for one shining moment, we were able to help a little Abruzzese princess dream a dream.