When a lump appeared on Kimberly Santo’s neck near the end of her high school freshman year, her first reaction was confusion.
“‘Whoa, what is this?’ It didn’t move or anything,” she remembered thinking. When she made an appointment with her pediatrician, her diagnosis came back swiftly: non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, stage 2a.
No shortage of pamphlets and fliers followed in the next three months of hospital visits and chemotherapy. But one notice on a bulletin board stood out: a scholarship for college-bound students who had been diagnosed with cancer.
More than half a decade after her diagnosis and safely in remission, Santo plans to graduate this spring from the University of Florida, thanks to funding from the Coconut Creek-based Chiera Family Foundation. The small notice on that bulletin board, she said, changed her academic career profoundly.
“It helped me to be comfortable and not have to worry about my financial problems,” Santo said. “It just made everything so much easier for me.”
The Chiera siblings never meant to start a multimillion-dollar foundation for children and teens with cancer. But after their father Nicholas — a former parks commissioner — died of cancer in 1989, his four children began looking for ways to honor him and his lifelong commitment to recreation and sports.
They toyed with having a park named after him, but after attending a luncheon raising money for cancer programs, son Lou came up with the idea of raising money for cancer youths and young adults.
“This is perfect — this is exactly what we were looking for,” he recalled thinking.
A few years later, the siblings started the Chiera Family Foundation, raising money through dinners and golf tournaments for the American Cancer Society’s cancer camp and scholarship program. When the Society decided to refocus its fundraising on research two years ago, the Chieras began funding a weeklong cancer camp for about 150 children at Camp Boggy Creek, a camp in Central Florida for children with serious illnesses.
“We felt compelled to still help kids” through the camp, Chiera said. “You can see that kid having an experience he wouldn't have had, being able to act like everyone else.”
Twenty-three years after its first golf outing, the Chiera Family Foundation has raised about $3 million, sending kids to the Boggy Creek cancer camp, and funding annual four-year undergraduate and graduate school scholarships ranging from $1,000 to $3,000.
“It's real, it's right in front of you, it's in your face,” said Lou Chiera, who runs a promotional merchandise company. “You know where your money is going.”
Some of that money has gone to Megan Hamerdinger, a two-time Chiera scholarship recipient for bachelor and master’s degrees at Florida Atlantic University. Hamerdinger attended the annual camp for several years after she was diagnosed with leukemia in 1995 when she was 5.
At first, cancer camp sounded like the last place Hamerdinger wanted to be. During her chemotherapy, her long, thin blonde hair began falling out in clumps, and she begged her mother for a wig.
“I was really self conscious about having lost my hair,” Hamerdinger said. Her mother bought her a brown shoulder-length wig with bangs as a replacement, one she brought with her when she went to camp for the first time.
“I remember sitting in the back seat of the car with my arms crossed,” she said. “I was mad my mom was going to drop me off in the middle of nowhere and leave me for a week.”
But Camp Boggy Creek — a weeklong outdoor program in Eustis — completely changed her mind. She made friends with kids who looked like her and weren’t confused by the complicated medical terms she already mastered. There was something else she changed her mind about too: her brown wig.
“I didn't wear it the whole time I was there; I didn't have to,” she said. “I wasn't the only one.”
Dozens of other Chiera recipients have finished bachelor’s degrees, including Scott McNeil, a former board member who died last year at age 26 after fighting brain cancer since he was 8. McNeil wrote a self-help book, When You Think You Got It Bad, which the Chiera Foundation sells at its annual dinners.
One of the program’s enduring hallmarks, Lou Chiera said, has been how many of the foundation’s scholarship recipients pursue health professions.
“It's great to see somebody go to college and then come back and give back to the community,” he said.
Santo, the UF senior, spent summers shadowing doctors and nurses at Shands Hospital, UF’s teaching center. She plans to attend physician assistant school when she graduates with a degree in psychology in May.
Hamerdinger, who graduated last year from FAU with a master’s in social work, is a social worker for children with behavioral issues and plans to pursue pediatric oncology — helping kids like herself — in the future.
In her spare time, she donates her hair, which has grown back brown since her diagnosis, for wigs. The regular trims mean she styles her hair shoulder-length with a hint of a bang: not unlike the wig she used to wear when she was 7.
“It's undervalued how important that camp experience actually is,” she said. “Without it, I can't say where I would be. It got to show people a side of me and it got me to actually be myself.”