happy campers

Coconut Creek’s Chiera Family Foundation is changing the lives of children with cancer

By Becky Randel | Photography by Luccia Photos

122A0679When Lou Chiera’s father passed away from cancer over 25 years ago, his family searched for the perfect way to honor their patriarch, a lover of children and the outdoors who served as commissioner of their local parks and recreation department. After bouncing around a few ideas, Chiera received a call at his place of work from an elderly woman.

“I was in charge of corporate giving, and she asked me what I was doing with myself outside of work,” he recalls. At her request, he attended a luncheon, where the 85-year-old had single-handedly raised $35,000 for kids with cancer. Inspired, Chiera knew he had to get involved.

Within the year, the Chiera Family Foundation was established, and the organization held its first event, raising $35,000 to send cancer children to summer camp.

In the coming years, the camp itself progressed, becoming a year-round treatment facility and full-summer camp, now known as Camp Boggy Creek, in Eustis, Fla. Paul Newman and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf stepped in to set up an unbelievable facility.

“There is no better place that your kid could be. Some kids even receive treatment at camp, that’s how nice the facility is,” Chiera says. “The pool was donated by SeaWorld, the gymnasium was donated by the Orlando Magic, and the theater was donated by Universal, so the whole facility is top-notch.”

Taking its purpose one step further, in 2014, the Chiera Family Foundation took over sponsorship for kids with cancer, committing to send 150 children to camp each year for one week. The program is entitled N.I.C.K.’s Camp, which stands for Nothing’s Impossible for Cancer Kids.

“It’s a wonderful thing to see the kids forget about what they are dealing with and just have fun,” Chiera says.

One such child is Jonathan Blanco of Coconut Creek, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2004 when he was only 21 months old. Over the next few years, as tumors re-emerged, Jonathan underwent surgery, chemo, stem cell transplants and an extremely aggressive form of radiation called Gamma Knife. By the time Jonathan was 4, the cancer was gone, but the treatments left the youngster with many side effects, including heart issues, vision complications, weakness, dizziness and growth problems.

When Jonathan turned 7, he informed his mother, Damarys, about Camp Boggy Creek and the Chiera Family Foundation. At first, she was hesitant to send her son away. “I said, ‘No, never, not my sick little boy,’” she recalls. But when the doctors assured her they would be there to help, she was swayed.

From that day on, Jonathan was hooked. “He was so much more independent and happy after camp, he kept telling me how many friends he had. At school, other kids couldn’t understand his condition physically, so it was harder to make friends. But at camp, he was popular,” Damarys says, adding that this was also the first time her son was able to play sports.

The program has touched Jonathan in more ways than one. He is personally inspired by the staff’s continued dedication. “I feel like I can do more at camp, and I want to help kids with cancer when I grow up—like be a camp counselor or maybe a doctor!” he says.

Chiera says this phenomenon is quite common. “A lot of the kids end up coming back and being counselors or CITs,” he says. “Some even end up as oncologists or social workers, helping kids with the same cancer that they once had.”

Raising the bar even higher, the Chiera Family Foundation recently started a college scholarship program where they send four students a year who have suffered from cancer to college. “We have a young lady who is a valedictorian from Coral Springs High, and she’s at Washington University in St. Louis now,” Chiera says. “There is no question this girl is going to be a doctor or researcher helping to find a cure for cancer—she’s that smart.”

As for the Chiera family’s original goal? “Mission accomplished,” Chiera says. “I know my dad would be so proud to see the kids having fun. That’s what he always wanted.”

Golf-Box-Sleeve-BallsPlay It Forward for Father’s Day

In an effort to “find things that would catch people’s attention,” the Chiera Family Foundation created the “Play It Forward” campaign, partnering with Bridgestone Golf to create branded golf balls. For every dozen purchased, $30 goes back to the foundation, creating a platform for people across the country to give in ways both large and small. “Why not take something that people have to reorder every couple of weeks and turn that into something positive?” Chiera says.

Best of all, the balls make the perfect gift for Father’s Day. You can even sign up for quarterly or monthly deliveries, with the idea being that once you receive the gift, you “Play It Forward” to someone else.

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