As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child.
But sometimes, it also takes a village to carry on the legacy of a child — and, in the process, make a difference in the lives of children those in the village may never even get the chance to meet.
Back in 2016, the Riverside and Brookfield communities were introduced to the story of Giovanni “Baby Gio” Torres, who, at just 6 weeks old, was diagnosed with a rhabdoid tumor of the liver — a rare cancer which usually occurs in babies and toddlers.
Throughout Gio’s treatment, his family and friends of the family began tying gold ribbons around trees in the area — gold being the color for childhood cancer — along with “Go Gold for Gio” signs.
Shortly before Gio’s death at 14 months in January 2017, a Riverside neighbor of his grandmother, Jennifer Veselsky, came up with a way to raise money for the family and spread awareness by selling gold beaded bracelets online. Then, one year later, family and friends on Lawton Road in Riverside gathered to sell lemonade in his memory and to support childhood cancer research.
Organized by Veselsky and her daughter, Amber Kobela (Gio’s mother), the inaugural lemonade stand in June 2018 was hosted through Alex’s Lemonade Stand, an American pediatric cancer research charity where 100 percent of proceeds benefit cancer research.
That first year, lemonade sales and online donations tallied approximately $4,700.
Following that success, Veselsky, Kobela and the moms and kids of Lawton Road held another sale in 2019 and despite the COVID-19 pandemic modifying the 2020 event, where masked-up volunteers passed out pre-bottled lemonade, the crew managed to raise just over $25,000 through social media marketing and online fundraising.
Though the original lemonade sale began with five other families, Kobela says as more young families moved onto Lawton Road and heard about the cause, they were eager to get involved.
“It’s a huge deal for the neighbors to still make the time to show support and help me in different ways of raising awareness,” Kobela said. “All of the kids on Lawton are wonderful. Gio was only here for 14 months, but he touched so many lives. It’s a big deal that the families make the time for this.”
Luckily for Veselsky, Kobela and fundraiser participants, an in-person lemonade fundraiser was able to be hosted on Friday, Aug. 27.
Throughout the year, families across the area chipped in money toward the cause. And in the weeks leading up to the August lemonade sale, Kobela and Veselsky made promotional lawn signs along with T-shirts for the kids and moms who help with fundraising.
Prior to the in-person lemonade stand event, online donations totaled $20,451.14. On the day of the sale they raised $6,371.96 in cash and another $7,850 in donations from neighbors and passersby. In addition, The Original Rainbow Cone sent their ice cream truck, and from two-and-a-half hours of sales, they donated $1,500.
At press time, Kobela reported just over $37,000 had been raised, with donations still coming in.
So, what’s the secret to the success of the fundraiser? Kobela says it’s simple — genuine care from the community and a drive from neighbors toward helping one another.
“Hearing that a child has or had cancer is a big deal — but it is huge that a child passes from cancer, and it’s unfortunate,” she explained. “No child should have to go through cancer treatments and not be able to live their life. Everyone on Lawton, whether they have or have not met Gio, is just so supportive because they know us as a family. They know how many people we help in general through fundraising. It’s huge having a support system.”
Riverside neighbors Giada Decola and Mia Marchetti, both 12 years old, are two of the kids who have helped out with the lemonade stand since 2018.
“It makes me feel good to know that all my hard work is paying off to give all the money to children with cancer to help them out,” Decola said.
Marchetti agreed that the fundraiser in Gio’s name carries great significance.
“It means so much that people come out because we’re raising money for kids who really need it,” Marchetti said.
Lawton Road resident Danny Jisa, who stopped by the fundraiser with his 2-year-old son, Flynn, says coming to support the cause was important to him because it helps send the message to his young son that it’s important to give to charity.
“It starts with just $1, and these kids can see that helping out makes a big difference,” he said. “It makes them realize what they’re actually capable of doing.”
With September being Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, Kobela says the fundraising website, lawtonlemonadestand.com, will be active to receive donations from now through the end of the year.
And, while it’s now been four-and-a-half years since her son’s death, Kobela says the love and encouragement from her family and community is truly what keeps her going.
“To this day, I’m still dealing with my grief,” she said. “I wish Gio could be here and play with the kids on Lawton, but at the same time, I think that I’m getting through it because of everyone’s support. If I didn’t have that support, I don’t know what I would be doing.”
This story has been changed to clarify that the the 2020 lemonade stand event was held in-person, but with COVID-19 protocols in place.