Anthony Joseph Walczak may only be 10 years old and stand 4 feet 6 inches tall, but the West Seneca boy has a super-sized heart – full of giving, fight and deep compassion.
His impressive inner strength has propelled him to raise more than $3,580 – more than double his goal of $1,500 – through the Ride for Roswell as his 38-year-old mother, Lisa Gainey, battles stage 4 breast cancer.
Affectionately known as “A.J.” at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament School in Depew, where he will be a sixth-grader this fall, he has rallied an outpouring of love and money to try to help his mom and others in the fight against cancer.
It won’t be his first time doing the Roswell Park fundraiser.
A.J. has participated in the Ride for Roswell for the past three years. It’s been tradition that he and his family ride in the charity event as part of an effort with Gainey’s co-workers at Superior Group in Williamsville.
While his great-grandmother Jean Sibilio battled pancreatic cancer, A.J. raised $1,100 through family and friends for the Roswell event.
A.J. was close buddies with his great-grandmother, who was a dedicated founder of the food pantry outreach program through St. Martha’s parish.
“He and my grandma had this amazing bond,” Gainey said, noting that A.J. spent a lot of time with Sibilio working at the church pantry.
A.J.’s great-grandmother died last June. She was 84. Two and a half weeks later, Gainey found out she had cancer.
She shared the scary news with her son.
“OK,” A.J. told his mother, Gainey recounted. “What can I do to help?’”
A.J. didn’t waste time coming up with a plan. He developed a fundraising page through the Ride for Roswell website for his next ride. He told of how hard the family’s summer was last year and how he didn’t know what to expect or how his mom would be.
“I knew I couldn’t stop it from happening,” he said about his mom’s illness, while taking a break from school to do an interview recently, “but it’s something I don’t want other families to have to go through.”
Gainey has been undergoing chemotherapy once a week since November. The plan is to shrink the tumor in her one breast that has grown to her spine, so that doctors can to operate.
Even though she is not being treated at Roswell, A.J. said, his mother’s doctors are great and “we all can benefit from the research and programs that Roswell has.”
A.J. plans to bike eight miles with family members in this year’s Roswell ride Friday and Saturday.
It’s the first ride in which his mom won’t be able to participate with him.
This May, A.J., famous at his school for always having a big smile on his face, kicked his fundraising for his mom into high gear by organizing a Crazy Hat Day at his school.
He pitched the idea to his school principal and then explained his plan over the school announcements to his peers.
Parents, teachers and students dressed in their craziest hats and made a donation to help in the fight against cancer.
Principal Debbie Szczepanski is amazed by A.J.’s commitment and energy.
“The response from Crazy Hat Day was overwhelming. I wanted everyone to learn compassion through one of our students,” she said. “A.J. has always had this kind, loving personality.”
His mother is amazed at the dedication her son has shown.
“He has gone to chemotherapy treatments with me and asks questions,” Gainey said. “He just has this big heart. The support that he and I have gotten from students has been amazing. No one has said to him, ‘Oh, your mom is bald and sick.’ ”
A.J. never expected the level of success of the Crazy Hat Day effort. People came dressed in Easter hats, animal hats, a hockey puck hat – just about anything one could think of. One student even wore four hats. And A.J., who has short blond hair, wore a khaki-colored camp hat, with long brown hair taped to it, sporting a breast cancer ribbon and school pin.
“Every penny counts to A.J.,” Gainey said. Her son has also designed T-shirts reading “Fighting for Lisa,” and he sold 123 of them to family and friends.
How does she describe her son’s efforts to help her?
“There are no words. I’m so incredibly proud. He’s a little kid trying to make a big difference,” Gainey said.
To donate to A.J.’s page, or any other rider’s, go to rideforroswell2013.kintera.org, click on Donate to a Rider and plug in Anthony Walczak’s name.