Moved by the story of a teenage girl she never met, Heather Zayas, a nursing student, was inspired to help make a difference in the lives of others.
Zayas and her classmates from the Chamberlain College of Nursing in North Brunswick were among the approximately 120 people who joined The Marisa Tufaro Foundation’s team of runners and walkers in the fourth annual Race to Outrun Hunger at Roosevelt Park on Sunday.
The 5K benefited Hands of Hope, an Edison-based nonprofit committed to providing an efficient and centralized system for distributing food to alleviate hunger in the Middlesex County area. Hands of Hope provided more than 9,400 meals to children, women and men last year.
The Edison High School football program, which also participated in the event and made a generous donation to The Marisa Tufaro Foundation, joined the nursing students in collecting an abundance of nonperishable food items for Hands of Hope.
Entering this year’s event, race director Stephen Dennis told the Home News Tribune the Race to Outrun Hunger has raised more than $60,000 since its inception.
“It was the most successful we’ve had in terms of number of participants and awareness in the community,” Dennis said of this year’s event. “Although we didn’t receive as much financial sponsorship, it was still a good year. We look forward to our fifth year being bigger and better than ever.”
A benefactor covered in full the Race to Outrun Hunger entry fees for the nursing students and Edison student-athletes, including members of the high school’s baseball team, who represented The Marisa Tufaro Foundation in Sunday’s event.
A nonprofit corporation with tax-exempt status pending, the foundation was established in loving memory of Marisa Tufaro, the 13-year-old daughter of Edison residents Greg and Cyndi Tufaro, who died earlier this year.
A 2008 South Brunswick High School graduate, Zayas said one of her college instructors, Candice Smith, emailed her about The Marisa Tufaro Foundation’s involvement in the Race to Outrun Hunger and asked if Zayas and her classmates might want to help.
“I read the story (about Marisa) and was literally in tears,” said Zayas, who, as president of the college’s Student Nurses Association, recruited more than 25 of her peers to partake in the event.
“As nursing students, we are always trying to do things outside of our school and really be involved,” Zayas said. “Chamberlain preaches extraordinary nursing. Any time there’s a chance (to perform community service), a lot of the nursing students jump on board.
“I felt it was kind of humbling to be there,” said Zayas, who will graduate from Chamberlain in April and plans to become a pediatric nurse after doing a recent rotation at Saint Peter’s Children’s Hospital in New Brunswick.
“The story about Marisa is so sad, but for everyone to get together for one cause like this and bring awareness was so beautiful in a way. I didn’t know Marisa, but looking at her story, that (helping organizations such as Hands of Hope) is what she would have wanted.”
Marisa was born with a complex cardiac defect that required six open-heart surgeries. Despite keeping hundreds of doctor’s appointments and being hospitalized for more than two years, Marisa lived a vibrant life that inspired.
A heart transplant, performed to extend Marisa’s life, tragically cut it short after a post-operative complication developed into a rare form of Stage IV cancer. After radiation and chemotherapy treatments failed to thwart the relentless onslaught of an aggressive disease that riddled her brain and body, Marisa succumbed to her illness in January following a valiant battle.
The Marisa Tufaro Foundation, which assists children in need throughout the greater Middlesex County area, is a fitting way to honor Marisa and keep alive her spirit. It allows Greg and Cyndi to give back to the residents of a community that has forever provided their family with overwhelming love and support.
As a student, Marisa joined her classmates, as well as the faculty and staff at James Monroe Elementary School, in collecting nonperishable food items to donate to Hands of Hope, whose mission of helping children in need and their families coincides with that of The Marisa Tufaro Foundation. Several of Marisa’s former teachers, as well as James Monroe Elementary School principal Lynda Zapoticzny, walked with the foundation’s team on Sunday.
Several Cardiac Intensive Care Unit nurses from New York Presbyterian’s Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital who cared for Marisa, took part in the Race to Outrun Hunger, as did Dr. Joseph Gaffney, chief of pediatric cardiology at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, who cared for Marisa her entire life.
The nurses from New York Presbyterian worked relentlessly around the clock for Marisa, who was hospitalized for 161 of her final 214 days. The staff became Marisa’s second family. The compassion and expertise of the nurses, many of who attended Marisa’s wake and funeral, left an indelible impression on the Tufaros, who hold the New York Presbyterian staff in the highest regard.
All of The Marisa Tufaro Foundation’s participants received a free specially designed commemorative T-shirt, courtesy of Bell Pharmacy in Edison, which sponsored the foundation’s team.
Marisa required multiple medications daily since birth, and after her heart transplant was taking more than two dozen different prescriptions daily. The pharmacists at Bell Pharmacy were beyond accommodating in fulfilling Marisa’s needs, and were an integral part of Marisa’s healthcare throughout her life.
The T-shirts for Edison High School participants bore the school’s red and gold colors. T-shirts for all other foundation team members were purple and white, reflecting the foundation’s colors. The front of all shirts displayed the foundation’s logo and the back of all shirts displayed the words “Marisa’s Missionaries.”
The Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders, Edison Township Council, Edison P.B.A., Edison Senior Firefighters, Edison Public Schools, Boy Scouts of America, Girl Scouts of the USA and others support Hands of Hope.
“The money raised from The Race to Outrun Hunger enables us to purchase the extra food that families can no longer afford to buy for themselves,” Jackie Goedesky, president and founder of Hands of Hope, previously told the Home News Tribune. “We have many success stories. People receive food to carry them through bad times and then when they are back on their feet they come to ‘pay it forward’ by donating to our food pantry and, at times, to volunteer. Our donors are able to visually see where their money goes and they often comment that they are always shocked by the long lines of people on the days we are open and it encourages them to continue to donate to us.”
The Race to Outrun Hunger was conducted on a U.S. Track and Field certified course, featuring slight rolling hills in a beautiful 217-acre park.
Several members of The Marisa Tufaro Foundation’s team claimed first-place medals, including New York Presbyterian nurse Gabriella Sehne, who won her women’s age group, Edison assistant football coach Matt McGuigan, who won his men’s age group, and Rich Whalen Sr., won placed first among males 61 and over.
Other medal winners from the foundation’s team included Debby Stab, Scott Stab, Caroline Whalen, Maria Sehne and John Meskill.