The Junior Woman's Club hosted an evening of shopping Thursday at St. Paul's in Westfield to benefit the Cancer Stinks Children's Foundation.
But better than the festive scarves, tasteful totebags and even the chocolate-covered almond treats, all available for purchase, was the chance to meet Nicholas Tarabokia, the affable president of Cancer Stinks.
At 10, the well-spoken philanthropist has a handshake most CEOs would covet, but Nicholas wasn't always as strong and upbeat as he was Thursday evening. After being diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia in 2006, at the age of 3, Nicholas faced a long, arduous battle that included three and a half years of chemotherapy. The treatment left him with many physical challenges. He had to learn to sit, crawl, stand and walk again through intense physical therapy. ]
On Friday, Nov. 16, Nicholas will be honored at the Valerie Fund's Gala at the Short Hills Hilton, where he will be named an ambassador.
"When I found out, I nearly fainted to the ground," said Nicholas, who added that while he is thrilled to be honored in this way and looks forward to receiving a medal, like most 10-year-old boys, he isn't thrilled about having to wear a suit.
During the summer of 2008, Nicholas was frustrated by the toll the disease was taking on him. Sitting at his kitchen table, he took a piece of paper and wrote the word “Cancer.” He then asked his mother, Amy, how to spell “Stinks,” and then drew a flower. The idea for the foundation was created in that moment.
"We knew it was something special and it was Nicholas’ way of telling the world how a child felt having cancer," Nicholas' mom writes on the foundation's website. "Right away he wanted to put it on something and with the help of some friends we made t-shirts with Nicholas’ new logo."
On June 7, 2010 Nicholas celebrated not only his eighth birthday but also his one year anniversary of being cancer-free. Regaining his strength, the boy from Berkeley Heights decided it was time to spread his message of hope.
Together with his family, Nicholas has delivered 140 care boxes known as "Nights of Love Packages" to sick children in New Jersey hospitals. Remembering his long, often frightening nights in the hospital, Nicholas said he wanted to bring children the comforts of home. The packages include the official Cancer Stinks stuffed, plush bear "Brownie," an impact-resistant, washable, huggable night light that never gets hot to the touch, and a picture frame to keep a photo of loved ones near the child's bedside.
"I wanted to make the kids feel like they're at home," explained Nicholas, who will be making two deliveries to South Jersey hospitals in the near future. "I want to be able to deliver them to kids all over the United States of America."
The package also contains a letter written by Nicholas (see photo attached) encouraging children to stay strong and never give up. Over the past two years, the cancer survivor has given numerous speeches, organized collections and participated in many events to help raise money for the cancer community, including a recent talk at the Lincoln Hubbard school in Summit.
"For Nicholas to be able to go into schools and speak to other kids, it really gives them a new understanding," said Amy. "We deliver the care packages as a family because when families meet Nicholas and they see how healthy he is, it gives them hope."
"It's really special for us and close to our hearts because Nicholas received his treatment at the Valerie Center," noted Amy.
A portion of the proceeds from Thursday evening's sales were donated to the foundation, which is run out of the family's basement.
Janette Puskar of Summit displayed colorful clothing for girls created by Matilda Jane. Puskar, who hosts in-home trunk shows, said she was happy to be part of the fundraiser.
"My father passed away from melanoma, so I'm glad to do anything to fight the disease," she said.
Not wanting older patients to feel left out, Nicholas is adding headphones to sleek, black packages for children ages 11 and older. Assisting him in his efforts is his younger brother and the foundation's vice president, Ryan.
"They do it all," said Amy. "They're excited and we hope to be able to continue to grow and help other children."
To learn more about Cancer Stinks or to make a donation, visit the website http://www.cancer-stinks.com/.