New charitable fund will extend generosity shown to Niantic family
Matt Guarraia says the generosity of the community has forever changed him and that he is honored that a new fund to assist children and families who are suffering was inspired by his family, their hardship and their desire to repay the kindness and charity that's been showered on them.
"I was never a recipient of charity in my life, and it's unusual and makes me uncomfortable," said Guarraia, the Niantic father whose 9-year-old daughter, Madeline, has been battling leukemia for almost five years.
"But I couldn't have lived without it. It saved our house, our cars, it allowed my wife to be able to be in the hospital with Madeline. It's an uncomfortable feeling, so you're always thinking ahead to better times and better things, and to one day, helping others," said Guarraia, a Waterford teacher. "I'm different now. This changed me. I know I will be more generous now than I was before this experience."
Matt and Aime Guarraia, the parents of Madeline, Julianne and Anthony, are the inspiration behind the newly established Cactus Jack Pediatric & Family Assistance Fund, the idea of businessman Michael Buscetto, who has pledged the estimated $50,000 in proceeds from his annual Bash at the Beach on Jan. 2 as seed money for the philanthropic endeavor.
Buscetto has partnered with the Cactus Jack Foundation to create the new fund and expects that he, Guarraia, and representatives from the Cactus Jack board will oversee the account and decide who the beneficiaries will be.
"I sat down with Matt and another friend of his and they talked about paying it forward," said Buscetto, whose family operates Filomena's restaurant in Waterford. "Matt and Aime are so appreciative of what the community has done for them, but they know there are dozens of other instances where others need help, too."
The Waterford-based Cactus Jack Foundation, named in honor of the late Edwin "Cactus Jack" Evento, was incorporated as a nonprofit in the mid-1990s and has raised and given away hundreds of thousands of dollars to people in need over the past two decades.
Now Buscetto wants to lend his clout as a fundraiser to the new fund, and have the experience and expertise of the Cactus Jack board help to administer the new program.
Like the Cactus Jack Foundation, the pediatric and family assistance fund will never hand out cash, but rather will do things like pay mortgage or utility bills, provide grocery or gas cards, or hire and pay a contractor to build a handicapped ramp.
Tim Gigliotti, who is on the Cactus Jack board, said Buscetto approached the group with the idea and pledged his support.
"We have a history of raising money and giving it away," said Gigliotti. "And Mike, well he works his tail off and gives it away, too. That guy has a way of getting money out of people."
Over the past seven years, Buscetto's annual Bash at the Beach has raised and handed out almost $500,000 to more than 20 nonprofit organizations.
This year, Buscetto said all the proceeds will go to the new fund to assist families who struggle like the Guarraias did to pay bills while working through a loved one's illness.
In the case of the Guarraias, there has been tremendous support — a Go Fund Me campaign a year ago raised almost $16,000 in just two days — and a great deal of publicity.
But in most cases, families struggle on their own without the support of the community.
"As I noticed the outpouring of support for the Guarraia family, I noticed as well dozens of other families who also needed help, but were not as high profile," Buscetto said.
Aime Guarraia, who has chronicled her daughter's illness, treatment and community support on a Facebook page called Mad about Madeline, which has been liked by 15,834 people — many who check in on Madeline daily by visiting the page — expressed a similar sentiment.
On Dec. 5, Aime Guarraia wrote, "If you feel inclined to help Madeline, please continue to pay it forward on Madeline's behalf, in her honor, in whatever way you can. We would LOVE to see some of the things being offered to her be offered to other deserving children in her honor. While Madeline has an illness that there is no known cure for, she has a roof over her head, clothes, food and tons and tons of love. In this way she is very, very lucky. So many others do not have these things. We can't thank you all enough for wanting to help. This world TRULY is full of amazing people!!!"
Matt Guarraia said his family wants to help others, and will do that as much as they can now, and more so in the future.
"Our journey is coming to an end. We are not in financial need now," he said. "But other families are."
He said the community support and financial help given to his family was especially appreciated because it didn't require hours of filling out forms and long waiting periods to get the cash when it was needed to pay bills or cover other needs.
And it allowed his wife, who is also a teacher, to leave her job and spend time with Madeline in the hospital.
With the blessings of the Guarraia family, their supporters said some of the funds they have raised for Madeline have been directed to a student in Montville who also is fighting cancer, in an effort to raise awareness of her case and garner the support her family needs.
"The Guarraia family have been responsible stewards of the support they've received and now they want to pay it forward and help others," Buscetto said.
The mission of the new fund, he said, will be to help children, young people and their families who are struggling, whether it be due to a medical situation, an accident or financial upheaval.
"The fund will be used as an aid to provide some help so that the difficult journey typically experienced in these situations can be eased a bit," he said.
Buscetto said he's not shy about pressuring those who attend the annual event to support his charities.
"I have a tendency to entice, to encourage people who can count their blessings to pay it forward," he said. "If they can spend $200 for a Beyoncé ticket or $150 to go see some Major League Baseball player who makes millions of dollars, they can spend $5 on a raffle ticket or $20 to get in the door. They're fortunate, and they can really help to give people who need it a boost in hard times."
What: Bash at the Beach
When: 6 p.m. Jan. 2
Where: Port N Starboard at Ocean Beach Park in New London.
Tickets: $20 and available at Filomena's.
Raffle: Among the items will be a $1,000 Mallove's Jewelers gift card, a cocktail/appetizer party for up to 20 guests at Filomena's, and tickets for concerts and sporting events.
More information: Visit Facebook at BuscettosBashAtTheBeach2016; to support the Cactus Jack Foundation, write c/o PO Box 145, Waterford, CT 06385 or email email@example.com; and for information about Madeline Guarraia visit Mad about Madeline on Facebook.
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“It gives me a chance to do what I love, which is bake and raise money for this very important cause,” Berryman said.