Mia Strobel, age 9, takes nothing in her young life for granted.
A field trip to Crows Woods community gardens in Haddonfield, attending class at Central Elementary School, learning to play basketball—these are all opportunities to be treasured.
That’s because Mia has been battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL)—a type of cancer that attacks white blood cells—since she was just 31/2-years-old. “She watched everything, was aware of everything,” says Pam Strobel, of her daughter’s painful struggle with the disease. “She was just so young.”
Mia was diagnosed on Christmas morning 2005, her mom says. She finished her first round of treatment in kindergarten and was medicine-free in first grade. But by the end of the school year, the leukemia was back.
Thus began a second round of chemotherapy, radiation and the search for a bone marrow donor. Meanwhile, the family was struggling financially.
“I never went back to work because her care was a full-time job,” Strobel says, of her daughter’s relapse. “I don’t know how people do it, juggling other children, a sick child and a job.”
Thankfully, the Strobel family received financial and emotional support from the community, particularly the Canuso Foundation, a Haddonfield organization that has raised more than $2 million to benefit pediatric cancer research.
In fact, it was a story of two local families inspiring one another.
In 2008, when Strobel was diagnosed for the second time, the Canuso clan—led by eight tight-knit siblings—was still mourning the loss of their sister Babe. Back in 1974, Babe had initially inspired the creation of Canuso Foundation when she was diagnosed with leukemia. She went into remission and grew up to have a family of her own while continuing the fund-raising work. But in 2005, she died from a brain tumor—a lingering side effect of her childhood treatment.
“When my sister Babe got sick she was only 9. We’ve been raising money since then,” says Mary Helen Ranieri, executive director of the Canuso Foundation and the oldest of the eight. But after Babe passed away, the family needed time to grieve and regroup.
“At that point we weren’t doing a lot of fundraising,” Ranieri says. “It took us a while to [get started again], to get our vision and mission together as a family.”
It was word of Mia’s struggle with leukemia that stirred them to action.
The family’s mission, Ranieri explains, turned from fund raising for research, to actively working to change the quality of life for kids who are sick or disabled.
“I feel this is what we needed to do,” Ranieri says. “It allows us as a family to keep going. We were tight to begin with, but this brings us closer.” In 2009, the Canuso Foundation launched the program Babe’s Kids as a way of uniting and empowering children across the region.
Led by a group of roughly a dozen Canuso cousins ranging in age from 10 to 18, Babe’s Kids encourages local youth to connect with other children who have cancer, disabilities or other serious illnesses. There are activities planned for children going in and out of treatment, or for those flying from across the country to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Babe’s Kids volunteers organize a summer camp at the Camden Ronald McDonald House; take kids to Riversharks games, movie nights and the Philadelphia Zoo; and spend time in the hospital playing games with sick children or video chatting with them on the computer.
“Whatever they [physically and mentally] can do, we get them the money to do it,” Ranieri says.
Inspired by Mia, Babe’s Kids also ventured into its first large-scale fundraising event, The Chicken Runs at Midnight, to help raise money for her care. The evening race and festival, which transformed the Haddonfield Memorial High School track into a carnival for thousands of community members, raised more than $90,000 in its first year—enough to help the Strobel family pay Mia’s significant medical bills and manage household expenses. “It was years of financial burden.… [Illness] puts a hardship on everything,” says Strobel. “You don’t realize it until you take a breath. And having a burden eased somewhere—it does help.”
More importantly, the event (and community support) made Mia “feel like a rock star,” she says.
Five years since her diagnosis, Mia, now a rising fourth-grader, has navigated two rounds of extensive chemotherapy, a heart bypass surgery and a bone marrow transplant—thanks to a fortunate match with her older brother. Now, she can enjoy the typical trappings of childhood: playing with her baby dolls; getting her nails done; visiting the beach with her friends; going to school. “She’s normal, she’s happy—but not only that, she’s an inspiration to me. To me, she’s amazing,” Strobel says.
Though she’s not out of the woods yet, Mia is slowly rebuilding herself, battling the illness with strength.
The Canuso Foundation is also stronger than ever. Babe’s Kids clubs have been established at Gloucester Catholic, Haddonfield Memorial and Paul VI high schools, where philanthropic students join in after-school activities and fundraising efforts. The group has gone on to help sponsor other children in the area, including 5-year-old Haddonfield resident Tyler Townsend, who has a rare neurological disorder that causes seizures, and Dominic Stratton, an 8-year-old Mount Laurel boy with cerebral palsy.
And there will be more to come, Ranieri says, including charity dodgeball tournaments at Rutgers University and projects at Cooper University Hospital in Camden.
“We said ‘Babe would want us to do this, so let’s get going,’” Ranieri says.
Photo: Mia Strobel, (right), of Haddonfield is surrounded by friends at a babe’s kids event. Strobel’s battle against acute lymphoblastic Leukemia inspired the organization’s recent community action initiatives.
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 5 (August, 2011).
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