By Michelle Spitzer
As soon as Christina Almonte heard the surgeon say the words, “I have some news to share,” she knew it wasn’t good.
The doctor told the Parkland mom of two that her son Angelo, then 13, had a rare form of cancer.
“I fell right on the kitchen floor,” Almonte said. “It’s not ever a situation you think you’ll be in.”
Overwhelmed and uncertain of what to do, Almonte’s best friend knew exactly who to call. Within one hour of Angelo’s diagnosis, the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation got Angelo tough-to-get doctor appointments, offered financial assistance, and, most importantly, gave overall support.
Anthony Rizzo, a graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, three-time MLB all-star, and world champion, is a South Florida hero. Many have heard about his annual Walk-Off For Cancer event held each November in Parkland; however, they may not know what the foundation quietly does behind the scenes.
It began when Rizzo was 18, on top of the world and playing in the minor leagues for the Boston Red Sox. That all came to a halt when he was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma.
“I had no idea what cancer was or anything about chemotherapy,” Rizzo told Parkland Talk. “I picked up my life and moved home to Florida to start treatments.”
Rizzo’s mom, Laurie Rizzo, stopped working and became his caregiver. One night while Anthony was in the hospital, the idea of the foundation was created.
“I told (my mom) that when I beat this and made it to the major leagues, we needed to give back and help families like ours,” Anthony said.
In 2012, a year after Anthony made it to the big leagues and was cancer-free, the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation was born. So far, $4 million has gone to families to pay expenses. Millions more have been donated to Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital, University of Miami Sylvester Cancer Center, and hospitals in Chicago and Florida.
Just last week, the foundation paid the mortgages for three families for an entire year. The foundation also pays everyday household expenses: groceries, childcare, utility bills to alleviate the financial burden.
Of the families the foundation helped in 2021, 56 percent of them lost at least 50 percent of their income because of their child’s cancer diagnosis.
“On top of the loss of their income, families have the increasing costs of their child’s medical needs,” Anthony said. “I know a lot of people don’t think about the additional costs. I never thought of these things until I started visiting with families in the hospital. But when a child is an inpatient, they get three meals a day, but the parent does not, so now you are paying for three meals five days a week once a month, gas to and from visits, insurance premiums and co-payments, additional childcare costs it all adds up and adds up fast.”
Already this year, 15 grants have gone directly to families.
“I want families to know they are not alone in their fight, that my family and I will be right beside them to help them through their battle,” Anthony said. “No parent should ever have to hear “your child has cancer,” The Foundation is here to lift those families up and make sure every child has a fighting chance.
Kelly Sorenson and her family know that all too well. It was June 2019 when they got the earth-shattering news that their beloved daughter Emma, then 12, had cancer. Living in Parkland, Kelly was put in contact with the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation.
“They paid our rent for us so that I did not have to worry about working, and I could take Emma to radiation five days a week in Miami,” Kelly said. “They also paid our utility bills. I had never been one to ask for help, and it was tough at first to even talk to them about needing help, but we were just so thankful and overwhelmed. Your day-to-day expenses, you don’t think about when you’re faced with a diagnosis, but those are the things that suffer, and they made a huge difference for us.”
The support goes well beyond financial. There are text messages, phone calls, care packages.
Emma was in the hospital in December 2019, nearing the end of her short life. She wasn’t talking much, her vision was poor, and she was mostly sleeping. Anthony sent Emma a video that included his new dog. Her parents played it, and although she couldn’t see well, she recognized his voice.
“She smiled and said how cute his dog was, and then she asked for us to play it again and again,” Kelly laughed as she recalled the happy moment. “I play it over and over in my head, the smile she had when we played that video. I can’t imagine he (Anthony) knows the impact it had on her.”
Thirteen-year-old Emma passed away on Jan. 30, 2020. Her funeral was a large event celebrating the vibrant, kind cheerleader Emma was. Kelly and her husband knew the funeral expense would be a stretch, but their daughter deserved the best.
When the funeral was over, the Sorensons went to pay the bill and were informed it had already been taken care of.
“At first, the gentleman at the funeral home wouldn’t tell us who paid the bill, but we pressed the issue, and that’s when we learned it was the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation,” Sorenson said. “We cried. We were overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity. It was so unexpected.”
There’s a reason the foundation has the name family in it. Anthony’s mom Laurie is highly involved and often calls the parents, which families say is immensely comforting.
Kelly still keeps a relationship with Anthony, Laurie, and others at the foundation. So does the Almonte family, including Angelo, who is now a 17-year-old junior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas and in remission.
As soon as Angelo was healthy enough to travel, Anthony flew him and his family out to Chicago, where they were treated like VIPs at a Cubs game. Angelo even threw out the first pitch for the game.
“Still to this day, I feel a little sense of comfort that they are there to help me in some way,” Angelo’s mom Christina said. “For us, that was a lifesaver. Everything they did was a lifesaver. They weren’t scared to talk to us and ask what we needed because they had been through it. I’m forever indebted to all the people who helped us.”
For Anthony, this is his mission.
“To do this type of work is so much bigger than anything on the baseball field,” he said. “My family has been through it; there are so many families going through it. This is as real as life gets. I will never forget where I came from. To give back means a lot to me.”
To apply for a grant from The Anthony Rizzo Foundation or offer support, visit rizzo44.com or email email@example.com.
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- Michelle Spitzer grew up in Coral Springs, attending Westchester Elementary, Ramblewood Middle, and J.P. Taravella High. She attended the University of Florida and has been a journalist for nearly two decades. As a reporter and editor for The Associated Press and USA Today, she’s covered everything from U.S. Presidents to shuttle launches to Jamie Foxx’s New Year’s Eve party.
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