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Hundreds turn out to sing carols to East Lyme girl battling cancer

East Lyme — The first notes of "Silent Night" on a saxophone drifted through Madeline Guarraia's neighborhood Sunday night.

Soon, another sound joined them. Hundreds of voices drifted over the rooftops, quietly at first, but then loud enough to be heard blocks away.

A crowd stood in front of Madeline's house, their faces lit up by Christmas lights and the candles they were holding. They finished the song in unison, then moved onto another Christmas carol, barely taking a breath in between.

The people standing in the November chill were neighbors, friends and classmates of the Guarraia family, there to show their support for a family that has been in their thoughts and prayers since they first learned that 9-year-old Madeline had cancer.

The community in East Lyme and beyond has shown its support through fundraisers, events and more than 700 lawn signs that say "Roar on Maddie" and "We (love) Maddie."

Now, the community is supporting Madeline by collecting toys to donate to other children at Yale-New Haven Hospital. 

Madeline, who loves the outdoors and tigers, has cancer for the third time in 4 1/2 years.

She had received a bone marrow transplant from her 2-year-old brother, but the family learned recently that the cancer has resurfaced.

Madeline asked that the community's support be used to collect toys for other sick kids at the hospital where she has been treated.

"Madeline could have asked people for gifts but instead wanted to pay it forward," Amy Parulis, a friend of the family who is helping to organize a toy drive for older children on behalf of Madeline, said in an email.

After reading a Facebook post from Madeline's mother, Amie, that discussed Madeline's wish to take toys to older children at Yale, Parulis decided to put a smile on Madeline's face by helping others.

Parulis set up a Facebook page, "Madeline's Wish Toy Drive," that shows more than 70 businesses and organizations from Niantic to Rhode Island that are collecting toys to donate to children ages 10 to 18 who are suffering from illnesses.

While the toy drive is called Madeline's Wish, it is meant to help all children battling diseases, said Parulis.

"Madeline, like many others, is fighting cancer while being so strong and courageous," she said. "It's her 'don't quit' spirit that has inspired so many of us."

One of the many drop-off locations in town is the Niantic Fire Station on Grand Street.

“We’ll do anything we can do to support the family through their hard time,” Niantic Fire Chief John McDonald said. “Whatever we can do to help them out, we’re here to assist.”

And that doesn't just mean toys.

A social media campaign encouraged people to "Light it Up for Maddie" by putting up their Christmas decorations by Saturday, Nov. 28. The tree lighting Saturday in Niantic honored Maddie.

People from New London to Texas to Florida also have posted photos on Facebook of Christmas lights and decorations in support of Maddie.

"Decorating early in honor of you, Miss Maddie!" states one post, on the "Smiles for Madeline" Facebook page. The post shows a photo of a young girl who is holding a sign that says "Roar on Maddie! Merry Christmas!!" beside a tree decorated with an orange tiger-striped star. 

Television news stories about Madeline have been broadcast in states beyond Connecticut, including Rhode Island, New York and Texas.

Parulis said she has received packages for the toy drive from as far as Colorado and London.

"Madeline's story has just touched so many people," she said.

First Selectman Mark Nickerson has been supportive of the grass-roots efforts by posting a large sign for Maddie outside Town Hall, but he said the best part is that the efforts originated from caring citizens. 

"There's such a show of community spirit and love and support from all these efforts that it's just defining who we are as a town," he said.

On Sunday night, as the crowd of more than 200 people sang one last round of "Jingle Bells" and "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" and several people in yellow Minions costumes danced about, Madeline came to the window.

The crowd cheered, and Madeline waved and ran back into the living room where her grandmother, Joanne Guarraia, stood.

Standing on the front yard, Madeline's dad, Matt Guarraia, gave interviews to a local television station and thanked the crowd for coming.

"It's nice to see this much support," he said. "We're trying to extract every minute of joy for her."

Guarraia said the family knows that Madeline's fan club, in East Lyme and around the world, is something special.

"We don't take anything for granted," he said. "We know that it's exceptional."

More information on how to donate to "Madeline's Wish Toy Drive" is available on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/events/521975084621489.

k.drelich@theday.com

Twitter: @KimberlyDrelich

m.shanahan@theday.com

Twitter: @martha_shan

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