Charitable fund keeping it local with gifts to those in need

Jason Shallcross checks his medical chart after his weekly blood draw at his apartment in Groton on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016. Shallcross is recovering from a kidney transplant and had several months of rent paid by the Cactus Jack Pediatric & Family Assistance Fund while he is out of work. (Tim Cook/The Day)
Jason Shallcross checks his medical chart after his weekly blood draw at his apartment in Groton on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016. Shallcross is recovering from a kidney transplant and had several months of rent paid by the Cactus Jack Pediatric & Family Assistance Fund while he is out of work. (Tim Cook/The Day)

Part of Tina Salcedo's job running the early Childhood & Family Center at New London Youth Affairs is connecting clients with community resources.

So when the 42-year-old wife and mother of three needed help, she knew where to turn, but was reluctant to ask for a handout.

"Part of my responsibilities is to help families get resources like oil assistance, diapers or child care. We give them referrals for whatever they need, we help families. But then I became one of those families, and it was really ironic, and it was very hard to ask," said Salcedo, a New London resident who has been battling Hodgkin lymphoma since April 2016.

But she did reach out to the year-old Cactus Jack Pediatric & Family Fund, supported in large measure by Waterford businessman Michael Buscetto's annual Bash at the Beach, and said despite her discomfort in asking, the largesse her family received in August was greatly appreciated and helped not just financially, but also aided her recuperation.

"I was just so sick at the time. I was having a difficult time recovering from radiation. And their support helped tremendously and gave me peace of mind," Salcedo said. "When Cactus Jack came in to help, it gave me the strength to heal and get better."

Over the past year, about $30,000 has been handed out to about 15 families and individuals in need by the fund that was created last December through a partnership of Buscetto and the long-established Cactus Jack Foundation.

Most of the gifting has come in the form of grocery or gasoline gift cards, rent or mortgage payments, and fuel assistance. When Tina Salcedo reached out to Buscetto, she asked for help buying back-to-school clothes and supplies for her children, ages 17, 15 and 10.

"It was just a tough time," she said. "My husband gets laid off every summer, and that was good because I was so sick and he could help care for me and the children. But we were overwhelmed, and we had three kids to get ready to go back to school," she said.

Salcedo was astonished when the Cactus Jack Fund responded.

"They did a thousand times more than I expected," she said, explaining the family received two $500 cards, one to a big box store and another to an area mall. And, they paid the family's mortgage on their Phillips Street home for one month.

"It's hard to put into words, but getting that (support) helped me to heal and our family to heal and for us to focus on what we really needed to be focusing on," said Salcedo, who is back to work about 20 to 25 hours a week.

'So very thankful'

Jason Shallcross, 41, of Groton was diagnosed as a boy with polycystic kidney disease, a genetic disorder in which abnormal cysts develop and grow on the kidneys. He went on the transplant list in 2011 and in July 2014 he started dialysis. In August, both his kidneys were removed and on Oct. 8 he received a kidney transplant.

A security officer at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, Shallcross has been out of work since the end of July, and in October, his sister, Heather Shallcross, sent a message to Buscetto to inquire about possible help for her brother.

"I had heard of (Cactus Jack and the Bash at the Beach), but I never really paid attention," said Jason Shallcross, who said the fund paid his rent for three months.

"I'm just so very thankful," he said, adding that not worrying about rental payments for a few months is a huge stress reliever.

Shallcross said he is looking forward to his return to work, and said he will be a strong advocate for the Cactus Jack Fund in the future.

"Stuff like that makes me want to give back and participate. That's good people stuff," he said." It's a great cause, and I'm very thankful, and if people can help out, I hope they do."

Recipients said unlike other resources, Cactus Jack is able to help without a lot of paperwork and a long regulatory process.

"They just give out to those who need help and it is amazing," said Ashley Gauthier of Niantic, who was being treated for her own cancer, sarcoma, when her 4-year-old daughter Molly was diagnosed with leukemia last May.  

Gauthier, 30, had to give up her job at a nonprofit in Madison when Molly was unable to attend day care because of concerns about contracting germs. Her husband is employed, but Ashley has had to undergo surgeries and is worried she will have difficulty finding work in the future because of the additional treatments she requires. And while Molly is in remission, her mother said chemotherapy for her leukemia is a 2½-year protocol.

"I'm a mess, but Molly is doing well, and I'd rather have it that way," Gauthier said, adding she was buoyed by the generosity of the Cactus Jack Fund.

It started, she said, with a $500 credit for gasoline at a local service station, a big help for the family because they were making multiple trips weekly to Yale-New Haven Hospital. Then the Gauthiers received a second $500 gas card, and another $500 card for a local supermarket.

"Their help has gone a long, long way," Gauthier said. "I just want to say a big thank you to the Cactus Jack Foundation. We couldn't have done it without them."

Helping is contagious

About a year ago, Buscetto, who owns Filomena's restaurant in Waterford, was inspired by the community's support and spirit in rallying around the family of 9-year-old Madeline Guarraia of East Lyme, who died early this year of leukemia. Buscetto asked to partner with the existing Cactus Jack Foundation and start an additional fund to help people in the community in need. The Cactus Jack Foundation was incorporated in the mid-1990s as a nonprofit, in honor of the late Edwin "Cactus Jack" Evento.

To fund the new pediatric and family assistance fund, Buscetto agreed to use monies raised at his annual Bash at the Beach, which in seven years has raised more than $550,000 and distributed the funds to nonprofit organizations.

Speaking about the monies that the new fund has disbursed in the past year, Buscetto said most requests come from friends or family members of those in need, or when board members read a newspaper story and decide they might be able to help.

"We get a call, or see something in the news or on social media," Buscetto said. "And we talk to a lot of people." 

The board then weighs the request and, when it decides to contribute, it makes a payment directly to a mortgage company, or a landlord, or to a merchant for a gift card.

"We like to keep the story short and sweet," Buscetto said. "What are the critical needs at that time and how can we help them out? We like to streamline it and we don't hand out cash. We focus on the basics — do they have food on the table? A roof over their heads? Oil for heat?"

That spirit of helping is contagious, Buscetto said, telling the story of a recent effort to help a family fill its oil tank.

The old furnace was so inefficient, it was nearly useless to keep filling it; so a local supply house and plumber stepped up to get a new boiler for the family and install it for free.

Someone else volunteered to remake the foundation's website, to help keep the public up to date.

"This is all 100 percent volunteer, no one takes a dime," Buscetto said, "and how this has all snowballed, that's great." 

The recipients agree.

"What is so great about Cactus Jack is that it is a local organization giving back in our local community," Tina Salcedo said. "When people donate ... it could be going to help out your friend, your neighbor, or even yourself one day."

a.baldelli@theday.com

Tina and Jakob Salcedo and their children, Camden, 17, left, Ava, 10, center, and Joseph, 15, right, are seen in their New London home Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Tina and Jakob Salcedo and their children, Camden, 17, left, Ava, 10, center, and Joseph, 15, right, are seen in their New London home Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

What: Eighth Annual Bash at the Beach

When: 6 p.m. Jan. 7, 2017

Where: Port 'N Starboard at Ocean Beach Park

Tickets: $20, checks may be made payable to Cactus Jack Pediatric Fund

More information: Visit the Buscetto's Bash at the Beach 2017 Facebook page

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