As children walked through the lobby of Miami Children’s Hospital last month, 2-year-old Daniella Collazo greeted them with a smile and a wave.
“It’s OK. You’ll be OK,” she said to the passing children.
About a year earlier, Daniella had been diagnosed with neuroblastoma stage III cancer, a type of cancer that develops in the nerve tissue with a high relapse rate. For about 10 months, Daniella went through six chemotherapy cycles, multiple blood and platelet transfusions, a bone marrow transplant and many hospitalizations due to her weak immune system.
“This hospital has basically become home,” said her father Jose Collazo, 32.
On Feb. 11, after being isolated for a month following her bone marrow transplant, Daniella was discharged from Miami Children’s Hospital.
Upon her discharge, her mother Dania Collazo, 32, was given a booklet instructing that Daniella would have to avoid public places, including playgrounds. Even her backyard became a dangerous environment, a threat to her weak immune system.
“I couldn’t find my daughter being happy, so I would imagine how I could make her happy when she got home, from all this pain and suffering she has gone through,” she said.
Collazo then told her friend, Silvia Dominguez Vanni, she wanted to fix the yard of their Miami Springs home, so her daughter would be able to play outside.
Vanni immediately began imagining a “germ free oasis” that would be an ideal play area for Daniella.
“Every child should have a place to play and be a child — a place to get away from the everyday torment of the cancer world,” said Vanni, who co-founded the Mystic Force Foundation in 2008, a year after her son, Salvatore, was diagnosed with the same type of cancer as Daniella’s. Salvatore died in 2011.
Vanni tweeted celebrity landscaper Ahmad “Ahmed” Hassan, asking him to help build Daniella a playground, catering to her special needs.
“I chose to simply say yes,” said Hassan, 41. “Daniella can’t help herself, but I can.”
Now, the Mystic Force foundation, which raises money for childhood cancer research to find safer and less toxic therapies specific for children, is working on creating a safe playing environment for Daniella, with the help of Hassan, Duane Draughon, lead designer of the project and owner of VizX Design Studios, and Mayor of Miami Springs Zavier Garcia, among others.
“You’d be amazed at what you can make happen when love, passion and special people are involved,” said Mayor Garcia, 39, who met the Collazo family after Dania reached out to him asking for prayers.
The construction, led by Hassan, former host of the television show “Yard Crashers,” will begin on April 11 as a two-day makeover with volunteers and spectators.
On a recent visit to meet the family and start the project’s preliminary planning, Hassan and Draughon traveled to Miami Children’s Hospital to meet Daniella’s doctor, Guillermo De Angulo, a pediatric oncology specialist, so he could better explain Daniella’s condition and specific needs.
Dr. Angulo said that because of the treatment used for neuroblastoma, Daniella’s immune system dropped, making her highly susceptible to illnesses. But as she is continuing treatment, currently with radiation therapy and soon immunotherapy, he said playing is also vital to her well-being and recovery.
“We can take care of the neuroblastoma, but activity and having fun is a critical component to her overall health,” said De Angulo, 41. “Being able to go outside and play, being able to enjoy life as a child is very important.”
The team plans to build a PVC deck, so it can be disinfected, along with an impact-attenuating surface to accommodate Daniella’s fragility, a shade structure and a child-friendly entertainment area, among other things, that the whole family can enjoy together.
Brittany “BB” Brown, a child life specialist at Miami Children’s Hospital who has been working with Daniella since she was first admitted, also suggested “bubbles.”
“She loves bubbles,” said, Brown, 31, who used them to help Daniella cope with her new surroundings and medical procedures.
Hassan and Draughon are studying how to incorporate a bubble machine into the design of the play area.
A sneak peak of the project’s 3D design, created by Draughon of VizX Design Studios, was posted on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to share with Daniella’s fans.
Social media has been a big contributor in this journey.
On Facebook, Team Daniella has about 1,780 likes. The Instagram account managed by her mother under the name, dania_collazo, has more than 8,090 followers.
Through her Facebook and Instagram page, Collazo has created a diary of her child’s fight in order to bring attention to childhood cancer.
“I know she’s a fighter,” said Collazo. “And I know the battle that God has put for her she’s going to win. She’s going to come out a winner and she’s going to make a difference.”
HOW TO HELP
If you would like to be involved, volunteer or donate, contact Silvia@MysticForceFoundation.com or call 305-726-1155.
Construction Date: April 11-12, 2015