Diagnosed with Stage IV cancer last December, 13-year-old Marisa Tufaro was weaned from a ventilator days before Christmas.
With high-dose steroids alleviating the swelling in her brain, Marisa miraculously regained her cognitive function and fine motor skills in time to celebrate the holiday with her parents, Greg and Cyndi, who could not have received a greater gift.
Through the generosity of strangers, Marisa, an eighth-grader from Middlesex County, was able to unwrap many wonderful donated presents and experience one final Christmas with her parents while being hospitalized in a pediatric cardiac intensive care unit.
In the spirit of that special holiday season, The Marisa Tufaro Foundation, founded by Greg and Cyndi following Marisa’s untimely death on Jan. 30, has partnered with the Old Bridge High School community to collect toys and gift cards for pediatric patients and other children in need throughout the greater Middlesex County area during Old Bridge’s Sept. 8 season-opening football game.
Old Bridge, New Jersey’s fifth-largest high school, is renowned for its school spirit. The high school’s football team, nicknamed the Knights, holds a different “theme Knight” for each of its home contests, and will kick off the 2017 campaign with a “Holiday Knight” Toy Drive in Marisa’s memory.
Spectators attending the Sept. 8 “Holiday Knight” game against South Brunswick are asked to consider dropping off a brand new and unwrapped toy or gift card as they enter Lombardi Field (a complete wish list of items can be found below).
The event, which takes place during Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, also will be used to heighten awareness about a disease that annually impacts nearly 16,000 children under the age of 21, a quarter of whom will not survive.
Old Bridge, named a National School of Character in 2015, has rallied as a school community to make “Holiday Knight” an exceptional event.
Volunteers from the high school – including students and staff – will adorn the stadium’s entrance, press box and concession stand with holiday decorations. The school will distribute to the first 600 Old Bridge students in attendance white-trimmed purple Santa hats bearing the high school’s logo (purple is the official color of both Old Bridge High School and The Marisa Tufaro Foundation). A snowmaking machine, which Miller’s Rentals of Edison has donated, will create a festive atmosphere for spectators entering the stadium as holiday music plays in the background. Old Bridge Schools Superintendent David Cittadino has arranged for a live reindeer, accompanied by “Yukon Cornelius,” to be at the game. Commemorative purple bracelets with the words “Old Bridge U-Knights with The Marisa Tufaro Foundation to help children” will be distributed free of charge.
The donated toys and gift cards will be delivered to area hospitals – including Bristol-Myers Squibb Children’s Hospital at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital and The Children’s Hospital at Saint Peter’s University Hospital – and to other local organizations that share The Marisa Tufaro Foundation’s mission of assisting children in need throughout the greater Middlesex County area.
Players and cheerleaders from both Old Bridge and South Brunswick high schools will join a representative from The Marisa Tufaro Foundation to deliver the collected items.
The donations will be available for distribution at the hospitals, not only during the holiday season, but throughout the year to meet the needs of pediatric patients, all of whom can benefit at any time from a diversion to help cope with the stress and pain that can accompany treatments, medical procedures and extended admissions.
“Saint Peter’s and our pediatric families are grateful for the support of The Marisa Tufaro Foundation and Old Bridge High School,” said Phil Hartman, hospital spokesman. “We serve thousands of children in need of serious medical care whose lives will be immeasurably brightened by the caring and support of the foundation and the Old Bridge school community.”
Parents of hospitalized children, some of whom are overwhelmed with medical bills and other related costs, may not be able to afford presents or are so consumed with caring for their ill child that shopping, even online, is not a possibility or a priority.
“Holiday Knight,” which is designed to help alleviate those issues, came to fruition because Old Bridge head football coach Anthony Lanzafama wanted his program to honor Marisa and to assist the foundation established in her name.
“Community is what Old Bridge High School is all about,” Old Bridge High School vice principal Sally Fazio said. “It is what we do and who we are. Community service is embedded in our school culture, and our students and faculty walk the walk.”
During a meeting with school administrators and The Marisa Tufaro Foundation’s leadership in preparation of “Holiday Knight,” high school principal Vincent Sasso and Cittadino challenged those in attendance, including Fazio and athletics director Dan DiMino, to think big and outside the box.
“The organization, communication, leadership, creativity, passion, and willingness the Old Bridge High School administration has exhibited in assuming full responsibility for committing to make ‘Holiday Knight’ a success is exemplary,” said Greater Middlesex Conference Executive Director Frank Noppenberger, who is a member of The Marisa Tufaro Foundation’s Board of Trustees.
Several Old Bridge “theme Knights” have been wildly successful including one four years ago in which the school community set a Guinness Book World Record for “simultaneous swishing of mouthwash” during a “Pink Out” for breast cancer awareness. That same year, Piscataway High School’s Dan Higgins, who has produced more college and NFL talent than any current public school football coach in the state, said he had never seen anything like the army of students who marched down Wisdom Way and into Lombardi Field following a season-opening tailgate party.
Fazio said the school community’s objective is to “help hospitalized children and their families during a difficult time and raise awareness for The Marisa Tufaro Foundation, which shares the same community values as Old Bridge High School.”
Volunteers from The Marisa Tufaro Foundation will distribute flyers at the game containing information about pediatric cancer and paying tribute to an Old Bridge elementary school student who is winning a battle against the disease.
South Brunswick administrators, including athletics director Elaine McGrath, are committed to spreading the word about “Holiday Knight” throughout their school district.
“I want to thank Old Bridge for letting us be involved,” McGrath said. “I think it’s great that we are demonstrating what it means to give back to our own community. It’s a great opportunity for two communities to step up and let their kids lead by example for a wonderful cause.”
A nonprofit corporation with tax-exempt status pending, The Marisa Tufaro Foundation allows Greg and Cyndi to give back to the residents of a community that has forever provided their family with overwhelming love and support.
The Knights have long embraced Greg, who has covered Middlesex County scholastic sports for nearly 30 years, as a member of their family.
Greg was privileged to serve in June 2015 as the keynote speaker at Old Bridge’s year-end student-athlete banquet, during which he took the opportunity to provide his take on why Old Bridge was named a National School of Character.
Marisa once accompanied Greg to Old Bridge on “Take Our Sons and Daughters to Work Day” when he was covering a story about ambidextrous baseball pitcher Tyler Hopman, a 2015 graduate of the high school.
Despite maintaining hundreds of doctor’s appointments and being hospitalized for more than two years, Marisa lived a vibrant life that inspired.
She was born with a complex cardiac defect. Marisa survived six open-heart surgeries and two life-threatening medical conditions prior to undergoing a heart transplant.
A postoperative complication from the transplant developed into a rare form of cancer, to which she succumbed following a valiant fight.
The Marisa Tufaro Foundation – whose mission is to help children in need throughout the greater Middlesex County area – has partnered with Old Bridge High School to collect toys for hospitalized children and others in need. Please consider bringing a brand new, unwrapped toy to donate at Old Bridge’s September 8th football home opener against South Brunswick. All donations will be distributed to pediatric patients at area hospitals and to other area organizations assisting children in need.
We can only accept items listed below. Thank you for understanding. Your generosity is greatly appreciated.
- Infant toys (toys that make noise, light up)
- Infant mobiles, crib mirrors, crib music players
- Rattles, pacifiers, teething rings
- Toddler playsets, i.e. Little People
- Dolls – Barbie, Monster High, princesses and baby dolls
- Music CDs (teen, children, infants, relaxation, lullaby)
- DVDs for children and teens (new releases, English and Spanish)
- Play-Doh/Model Magic and tools
- Arts and craft supplies, coloring books, crayons and markers
- Lego, Mega Bloks, K’NEX playsets
- Matchbox, Hot Wheels cars and playsets
- Uno cards, playing cards and other card games
- Books, including board books for babies, hardcover, paperback, crosswords, Sudoku
- Action Figures (non-violent)
- Beauty and hygiene items for teens (lotion, nail polish, deodorant, travel size toiletries)
- Pajamas – infant through teen
- Beanie hats, slipper socks and other clothing items/accessories for teens
- Blank T-shirts and fabric paint
- Ear bud headphones
- Lined and unlined journals for kids and teens and gel or ballpoint pens
- Puzzles (25 to 100 pieces)
- Electronic learning toys, hand-held video games
- Video Games and wireless controllers for Xbox 360
- Portable DVD players, boom boxes, CD players
- Batteries (AA, AAA, C, D)
- Gift Cards: Visa, American Express, Amazon, iTunes, Game Stop, Toys “R” Us, Target, sporting goods stores