Wilson Gregory (Photo by Courtney Hack)

Last week three Riverside teenagers who are swim coaches and lifeguards at the Riverside Swim Club put on a fundraiser for the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation to honor a 10-year-old Riverside boy who is battling a recurrence of cancer. Approximately 250 turned out for the event which was held in the Scottswood Common, across the street from the Swim Club. The event raised nearly $10,000 which is being donated to the Rizzo foundation in honor of Wilson Gregory.

“It was amazing,” said Gregory who will be starting fifth grade at Ames School later this month.

Gregory was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a childhood cancer that starts in immature cells, just before he turned one in 2013.

For the next 15 months Gregory underwent several rounds of chemotherapy, surgery, received a stem cell transplant, 32 round of radiation, and six rounds of immunotherapy. During his time at Lurie Children’s Hospital Gregory met former Chicago Cub and current New York Yankees first baseman Anthony Rizzo who founded the foundation to help families dealing with childhood cancer after surviving his own battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma when he was 17.

10-year-old Wilson Gregory, with the three teenagers who organized the fundraising wiffle ball event, (Left to right) Charlie Buh, Annalisa Cinkay, and Hayden Marrs. (Photo Courtney Hack)

Wilson was in remission and doing well until this past January when he began having stomach pain and ended up in the emergency room at Lurie. A CT scan and a biopsy showed that the cancer had returned. This year Wilson was hospitalized from Feb. 16 until April 8 and missed 70 days of school. He had a bad reaction to surgery to replace a port and spent several days in pediatric intensive care. He has had to undergo six rounds of chemotherapy and immunotherapy and this week is starting his seventh round of in-patient chemotherapy at Lurie before switching to oral chemotherapy.

On May 25 Annalisa Cinkay, 19-year-old rising sophomore at the University of Iowa, babysat for the Gregorys, who have two other children, 12-year-old Harry and six-year-old Georgia, in addition to Wilson. Cinkay had babysat for the Gregorys sporadically over the past few years and knows Wilson from coaching him at the Riverside Swim Club. She is very fond of Wilson.

“He is one of the most emotionally aware and caring children I’ve met ever,” Cinkay said. “He’s very socially intelligent. He is so beyond friendly.

He is also very funny.

“That kid does not stop with the jokes,” Cinkay said.

After her babysitting assignment was finished Cinkay was Facetiming with fellow Riverside Swim Club lifeguard and swim coach Charlie Buh. She was upset that Wilson was sick again. She wanted to do something to help Wilson and the Gregory family. Cinkay and Buh began brainstorming, or spit balling as they called it. They came up with the idea of having some kind of fundraiser. Fellow swim coach and lifeguard Hayden Marrs, a 16-year-old rising junior at Riverside Brookfield High School, heard Cinkay and Buh talking about what they wanted to do and he got involved as well.

“Having a 16-year-old want to get involved in something like that is just so great so we were so happy that he wanted to get involved and have him as part of our team,” Cinkay said. 

Their initial idea was to raise funds for the Gregory family but Wilson’s mother, Katie Gregory, told them that the family did not need any financial help. While babysitting in May, Cinkay noticed that Wilson had a poster of Rizzo on his bedroom wall. She assumed that Wilson was a Cubs fan. No, he corrected her, he is an Anthony Rizzo fan.

Wilson and the Gregory family have attended numerous events sponsored by the Rizzo Family Foundation and Wilson met Rizzo again at an event last year. When Wilson was going through his first bout with neuroblastoma the Gregory family had received help and support from the Rizzo foundation. In June of this year the Rizzo Family Foundation paid for a trip to New York City for Wilson who went with his father Dave and two other adults and two 9-year-old friends. They saw the Yankees get no hit by the Houston Astros and saw the sights including going to the top of the Empire State Building and visiting the Statue of Liberty.

Cinkay, Buh and Marrs spent the summer organizing the fundraiser: communicating with the village, meeting with the board of the Riverside Swim Club, working with local merchants to obtain prizes for raffles, arranging food, and handling the myriad administrative tasks that come with putting on an event.

“I don’t think we knew how much would actually go into it,” said Buh, a 19-year-old rising sophomore at Miami of Ohio. 

The event surpassed their initial expectations as more than 200 kids and adults showed up for an afternoon of fun and frolic.

“It was just three teenagers trying to cram their heads together because none of us had ever done anything like this, but I think it turned out really beautiful,” Cinkay said.

Parents paid $10 for a child to participate. The event featured a wiffle ball game for children, dunk tanks, pies in the face for the swim coaches (Marrs got about 13 pies in the face), water balloon toss contests for children and adults, slip n slide games and raffles. Wilson, who is not a big baseball fan, threw out the first pitch of the wiffle ball game.

“It was exactly what we wanted,” Cinkay said. “We wanted an outlet for our kids to feel like they could support their friend and our community to feel like they could support a wonderful family and I think we got to do both.”

Buh said it was gratifying to pull off the event.

“It was a blast doing it all,” Buh said. “I would not change one thing but it was hard work. We all put a lot of time and a lot of effort into it.”

Even though Wilson has not felt well enough to practice much with the swim team this summer he has been his usual energetic and fun presence at the pool this summer. Wilson especially likes hanging out with lifeguards and helping them out when they are folding down chairs. He’s a touchy, feely kid.

“I can’t explain how much I love that kid,” Cinkay said. “He really, really cares about making everybody feel important and feel love and he expresses it physically and through his actions and at the pool he runs around with every child. He doesn’t make anybody feel bad, friend or not, he will treat you with kindness and respect and he’s there all the time, talking with everybody, but not bothering anybody.”

The event was great therapy for Wilson’s mother.

“Physically he feels better than he has felt since Christmas so it was really fun to watch him run around and dunk kids in the dunk tank,” said Katie Gregory.  “He was really excited about it. He really appreciated all these people coming to celebrate him. It was really great seeing him feeling well and getting to celebrate and have fun and just be a 10-year-old,”

Wilson told the Landmark that there is one upside of having to deal with cancer again.

“I can call my sister annoying and no one will get mad at me,” Wilson said.

Buh and his fellow lifeguards said that the event was just what they wanted and hoped for.

“I’m just so grateful for the community we have in Riverside, just to see how many people came out to support Wilson,” Buh said. “It made Wilson happy and it made all of us happy that we have such a great town that we live in.”