Jennifer Giacobbe never expected that an idea to get her daughter to give back to those less fortunate would evolve into a community effort.
Three years after initiating a birthday tradition of helping others, a project for two turned into a mission for two dozen Cedar Grove High School youngsters, who recently raised $2,500 for ill children.
It all started in 2011 when Julia Giacobbe and Hallie Richardson wanted to have an extravagant party to celebrate their 13th birthday. (The girls were born on the same day – March 4.)
However, Julia’s mom planned to involve the girls in charity instead. This, Jennifer Giaccobbe thought, would not only help the girls realize how fortunate they were, but give herself and Hallie’s mom a reason to reward the girls with the party they wanted.
Beginning their volunteer work, Julia and Hallie donated toys to St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston, collected summer gear for children in need, and volunteered their services at Camp Happy Times – a week-long overnight camp for kids diagnosed with cancer.
“Organizations like these are perfect opportunities for kids to make connections [with]. It’s something tangible for them to understand because they are helping other kids,” Jennifer Giacobbe said.
Last year was the first time the girls signed up to participate in the Valerie Fund Walk in Verona Park. Julia and Hallie, along with nine other girls, called themselves the Dream Team and raised about $1,800.
This year, the now 16-year-olds got together with 22 of their schoolmates and participated in the walk, raising $700 more than in their first attempt. In total, the Dream Team was comprised of 22 sophomores and two incoming freshman, Austin McCall and Julia’s younger brother, Dylan Giacobbe. Two members, along with a host of family and friends, registered or donated to the cause through Facebook and the Valerie Fund’s website.
“The boys didn’t really want to do it at first,” Julia said. But they changed their minds when a friend and teammate, Michael Dougan of the Cedar Grove High school baseball team, discovered that his younger cousin was diagnosed with leukemia. Michael’s friends, in a show of support to him and his family, joined the walk.
“It was really inspiring. And [those] who couldn’t go still donated,” Michael said.
Encouraged by this year’s doubling in members and increase in donations, Jennifer Giacobbe hopes to keep the tradition going. Julia wants the walk to inspire others to do just that.
“When we get out there to see what it’s really all about, and [see that] the kids are healthier now, we realize that we’re fortunate to [be able] to help,” Julia said.
The girl’s moms have given to charity for so long and the experience has made them “realize all the things we’ve taken for granted,” Hallie said.
Another tradition the Giacobbes hope to continue is their annual picture with family friend and cancer survivor Aaron Newton, a 4-year-old from West Milford. Newton is in remission from neuroblastoma. For the past two years, the Dream Team has taken a photo with Newton after successfully completing the walk. And with his illness at bay, Jennifer Giacobbe hopes the tradition can continue for years to come.