Ten-year-old Julia Diane Wilson of Sound Beach lost her battle with acute lymphocytic leukemia two years ago this week.
Family and friends — both old and new — marked the anniversary with the second annual Team Julia — Fight Like a Girl memorial fundraiser held Aug. 21 at Stony Brook Yacht Club.
Julia’s grandparents, Dan and Diane Donahue, are longtime Setauket residents and this is the second year the fundraiser was hosted by the yacht club, where they are members.
The building was filled with supporters of all ages, from infants to senior citizens. Gift baskets were raffled off, T-shirts were sold and donations were accepted. Led by Julia’s parents and grandparents, the event seemed more a celebration of the girl’s life and spirit rather than a memorial.
This support group was an outgrowth of Julia’s compassion for others. Even while undergoing treatment herself, she wanted to make things better for the children around her. So the adults in her life committed to doing just that for Julia.
“Grandma, when I get better … Mommy, when I get better … we have to help these kids,” Diane Donahue recalled her granddaughter saying. She spoke of creating things at the hospital and watching Julia bring them to the child in the next bed, hoping to make him or her smile. “She was a true jewel — way beyond her years,” she said.
Team Julia is all about supporting children and their parents. They create goody bags to distribute at Stony Brook Children’s hospital. They help parents pay bills, and stock the pantry at the hematology/oncology clinic at the hospital with easy meals and snacks to help families through the long chemotherapy and infusion days. They also plan to feed families at Ronald McDonald House. Last year Julia’s father Dave Wilson said they created a prom for the children at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in the city, bringing in lots of dresses for the girls to wear.
Julia’s mother Erin Wilson wants to start a group for bereaved parents. She feels there isn’t enough support for the grieving process, as losing a child to cancer usually involves months and months of treatment and hope.
Julia’s grandmother said the group considers educating the public, including representatives and senators in the U.S. Congress, another one of its top priorities.
“I don’t think anybody’s aware of it until they are in it,” Diane Donahue said. “And when you’re in it, it’s not a group you want to belong to, but I’ll tell you what, you can make a difference.”
She joined the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, sent messages to her congressman and lobbied the folks who control the lighting on the Empire State Building to light it up gold, the color symbolizing pediatric cancers. “They’ve made it other colors, but they won’t make it gold for the children,” she said.
According to the National Institute of Health’s website focusing on childhood cancers, an estimated 10,380 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in children aged birth to 14 in the U.S. this year. More than 1,200 children are expected to die from the disease. Pediatric cancer death rates have declined by nearly 70 percent over the past 40 years, but cancer remains the leading cause of death from disease among children.