Foundation funds dream trip for family dealing with life-threatening illness
Faced with the decision of where to go on an all-expenses-paid vacation, Grand Junction teenagers Antonio and Joanne Rizzuto picked a place that may surprise some.
They wanted to go to New Orleans with their parents. But not to eat jambalaya or listen to jazz.
The teenagers wanted to meet relatives they had only heard stories about.
Antonio and Joanne’s decision to put family first left such an impression with the board members of the Tammy D. Martin Trips, Dreams & Memories Foundation that they all agreed the Rizzuto family deserved a week of fun and family in The Big Easy.
It was a happy gift for all involved, even if the life’s journey that led to New Orleans has been anything but easy for the Rizzutos.
The Grand Valley family was selected to go to New Orleans because Michelle Rizzuto, Antonio and Joanne’s mother, has a life-threatening illness.
Michelle was born with pancreas divisum and was diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis in 1998. The illness has weakened her body to the point that any common infection could take her life.
The purpose of the foundation, created in 2009, is to provide local families with a parent who has a life-threatening illness the chance to go on a trip to create a positive memory for the children. The foundation, which is funded through private donations, was created after its namesake died of cancer before she could take a last vacation with her children.
Those involved with the foundation want other families to have what Martin’s did not.
In the case of the Rizzuto family, Antonio, 16, remembers the first time his mother showed symptoms of her illness 12 years ago. Joanne, 13, doesn’t remember life before her mother’s illness.
Although the family has come to terms with the severity of Michelle’s illness, that doesn’t make it easy to watch, particularly for the kids.
“I will die from it,” said Michelle, 43. “The kids know that.”
Michelle has spent 12 years in pain. The financial strain the never-ending medical bills have put on the family is not lost on Antonio or Joanne.
Those issues also weren’t missed by the foundation’s board members, who realize that affording a family vacation when one parent is fighting a life-threatening illness is nearly impossible.
Andy, 56, the patriarch of the Rizzuto family, admitted that even when he held a full-time job with benefits the combination of the family deductible and required co-insurance left about $20,000 per year in bills for Michelle’s treatment. Those bills have only increased.
Now, both parents are unemployed.
When Antonio and Joanne met with the foundation’s board in April, after the family was nominated by Michelle’s nurse at Hospice & Palliative Care of Western Colorado, the teenagers told board members they wanted to visit their New Orleans family. Their father’s mother, siblings and other family members live in New Orleans. Andy has not seen them in 25 years.
Picking New Orleans was easy, Antonio said. “I haven’t seen my mom that happy in a while.”
In early June, the Rizzutos flew to New Orleans on the foundation’s dime. They also were supplied with a rental car package, hotel accommodations and everything else the family needed for the one-week vacation, including two cameras to capture everything.
On a recent evening, the family excitedly went through their photos, explaining to foundation board members what was going on in each photo.
Michelle gushed about their “cool” Nissan rental car. Andy said his brother cried when they saw each other for the first time in 25 years.
Antonio told everyone his favorite moment was programming his grandmother’s TV remote control with his 28-year-old cousin.
The Rizzutos apologized that half their pictures were missing because Joanne still has them in New Orleans. She asked to spend the rest of the summer in Louisiana so she can better get to know their family there.
“I think it will be one of the most memorable experiences of her life,” Andy said.
But the trip for all of them really was the trip of a lifetime with many fond memories, the Rizzutos said.
“There was so much love,” Andy said. “There aren’t words.”