Media | Globe Article

Making Holiday Wishes Come True Young Patients Benefit from Man's Foundation By Gloria Negri, Globe Staff 12/24/2000 - City Weekly

On Christmas Eve, a 10-year-old boy named Mike, described by Children's Hospital as having "a life threatening, chronic illness," asks Santa not for designer jeans or a computer, but only for "some kind of top" to wear over his trousers.

He hopes for nice heavy sweatshirts for his older brothers, Jim, 14, who takes care of him, and Jason, 12, who makes them both laugh when they are down.

The boys have lived with their grandmother since their mother died three years ago. They have no contact with their father.

Thanks to volunteers with the Frank Iovieno Caring for Children Foundation, Mike will get his wish.

So will more than 110 other youngsters in the Children's Hospital AIDS Program because most of the youngsters with the "life threatening illness," as the hospital describes it, have AIDS or HIV that causes it.

Many of them have lost parents to the disease and are living with guardians, in many cases, their grandmothers.

Children's Hospital has released some of the children's stories on condition that their real names not be used in order to protect their privacy. But their stories are real.

"My granddaughter is 15 and was born with HIV," said a 67-year-old grandmother in a telephone interview. She asked that her name not be used. "She is my son's child. Her mother died 12 years ago from drug use. This program is wonderful. Before it, I was unable to buy a lot of things, like coats, mittens and hats. At one time, I was taking care of seven grandchildren. This program bought me a washing machine. My little girl, though she is a teenager, still loves stuffed toys and they provide them besides the clothes we need. God will bless this man."

The story of how the foundation was started four years ago by John Iovieno, a product marketing manager for Nortel Networks in Chelmsford, proves the Christmas spirit is alive and well in the hearts of many.

Iovieno, a 32-year-old from Waltham with no children of his own, said he was Christmas shopping four years ago for his family, "when I realized we were all doing well and didn't need anything, while a lot of other people were struggling. Suddenly, I felt very empty and that I was missing the spirit of Christmas."

Right then, with no particular child in mind, he decided to buy a gift for a youngster. He chose a suitcase of matchbox cars and called Children's Hospital to find a child who might want it. Social worker Rachel Diness knew of one who would.

"After Christmas," Iovieno said, "the social workers at the hospital told me the boy had loved the gift. He had diabetes and his mom had passed away. That was the best $40 I had ever spent, so I made a pact with myself to do this every year and to expand it for more kids and with more volunteers. I know a lot of people and decided I could do all the work for them through the hospital and find them a child to sponsor."

It is now a one-on-one relationship between donor and child, including the child's guardians, though the donors and families remain anonymous to one another. The link between giver and receiver is just a letter about each child's situation written by Diness and two other social workers at the hospital.

Iovieno was aware that many people like to give toys to Children's patients at Christmas, so he decided that the foundation should instead concentrate on donating clothing for the children and their caretakers, while not omitting toys altogether.

He understood the loneliness and despair of one teenager, who, he describes as "in the end stages of her illness." He saw to it that the foundation sent a video-cassette player to her and her 70-year-old grandmother, with whom she lives.

Word of the foundation's work has spread. When Iovieno started it in 1997, 40 volunteers helped 30 children. Last year's 140 volunteers and 80 children have jumped to 230 volunteers and more than 110 children this year.

In a telephone interview, another grandmother talked about the program.

The 58-year-old and her husband are caring for a 9-year-old granddaughter born with HIV. The girl's mother died of AIDS at age 27 three years ago. Every day, one of the grandparents walks the girl to school, where she is an honor roll student.

"The program has provided her with a lot of things we wouldn't have been able to afford, like coats and mittens, and for myself, as well," the grandmother said.

Iovieno named the foundation in honor of his father, Frank, who died suddenly last March. "Our parents always taught me and my three siblings the value in helping others, and they led by example," he said.

Each Christmas season, Iovieno has a party at his apartment where donors wrap the gifts they've bought for children who they know only through letters from the hospital social workers. This year, Iovieno's mother, Rosemary, and his siblings came from Westchester, N.Y., to help. Iovieno hired a van to deliver 400 gifts to the hospital.

He said there were so many volunteers this year, that he decided to rent the Newton Community Service Center for the gift-wrapping get-together. Donors say they probably get as much out of the giving as do the children.

"I felt I was not wrapping gifts, but rather wrapping my arms around those wonderful children and their families during this magical time of year," said Sabrina Baloun of Brookline.

Heather Symecko and Paul Kasper of Boston wrote Iovieno: "We want to thank you for this opportunity. We both left feeling that we had been given a gift. The true meaning of the holidays came through."

One need only read a few summaries of the children's lives to understand how compelling they are:

There is 10-year-old Josh, and his sister, Janet, 14. Both are ill. They live with their grandmother because their mother, a substance abuser, is unable to care for them.

There is 3-year-old Carmen living with a foster mother and needing all sorts of clothes. And Briana, 9, who has lived with her grandmother since her mother died two years ago. Her father doesn't contact her.

Juan, 10, lives with his mother and would like clothing for himself and his brother, Raul, 12, and sister, Maria, 14. And there is Ben, 4, who never knew his mother and lives with his father and paternal grandparents.

Isabel, 12, is also sick and an orphan. She lives with her maternal aunt and her aunt's family. Though Isabel has little in the way of clothing, Diness said, "she always arrives at the clinic immaculately dressed."

Sixteen-year-old Earl is sick and also deaf. He'd love a shirt, as would his brother Joseph, 13. His sister, Angie, 10, needs a sweater.

Lucia, 12, is sick and lives with her 17-year-old sister, Abigail, who is married and acts as her guardian. Their parents died two years ago.

If John Iovieno has his way, the children and those who love them will have all the clothing they need.

Those interested in contributing to the Frank Iovieno Caring for Children at Christmas program should visit the Web site at www.frankccc.com.

Link to actual article in Boston Globe Archives.

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