Helping People

Families’ tradition of volunteering makes La Liga a life-saver

There were more than 130 models at a fashion show put on by La Liga to gather funds for their fight against cancer, Saturday, October 25, 2014, at the Double Tree Miami Mart Hotel.
There were more than 130 models at a fashion show put on by La Liga to gather funds for their fight against cancer, Saturday, October 25, 2014, at the Double Tree Miami Mart Hotel. Miami Herald staff

The echoed chant anticipating Shakira’s Waka Waka brings an African plain sunset to the screen. Girls dressed in earth-tone chevron stripes and African prints press together their hands in prayer as they move their hips from side to side. The once-crowded tables empty out as smiling parents and grandparents try to find the best spot to sing along and capture the scene, phones and cameras in hand, as the young models make their way down the runway.

This was the scene Oct. 25 at the 13th annual Children’s Fashion Show Luncheon, which brought together the friends and family members of more than 100 children who performed for the audience, raising more than $100,000 through ticket sales, pledge drives, a silent auction and raffles.

The funds will allow low-income, uninsured men, women and children who prove to be Florida residents a chance at fighting cancer, fulfilling the mission of the nonprofit La Liga Contra el Cancer (the League Against Cancer), which was founded in Miami in 1975.

“It was one of the best fashion shows we’ve ever had,” said Mayra Piña, the event’s organizer and a volunteer with La Liga for more than 30 years. “It was a total success.”

For Piña, 65, the success of La Liga, which has treated more than 61,000 people over the years, is the result of commitment: Unlike the practice many similar organizations, La Liga’s doctors, board of directors and executive board are volunteers.

“We don’t even get reimbursed for gas,” said Piña.

La Liga’s volunteer force and the support hospitals like Baptist Health, which does not charge La Liga for using its facilities, ensures that out of every dollar donated, 80 cents goes to patients, with 12 cents going to administrative costs.

“Here, we treat people,” said Manny Alfonso, 46, who started as a cangrejito (little volunteer) when he was 8. “You get diagnosed with cancer, you have nowhere to go, you’re distraught, you don’t have a penny to pay, you come and if you qualify, La Liga picks it up,” he said.

Low-income Florida residents with a cancer diagnosis are accepted into La Liga and receive all of their treatment, including medication, follow-up visits, psychological help and even wigs, at no cost.

“I probably wouldn’t exist anymore if it weren’t for La Liga,” said Francisca Gonzalez, 47, as her friend Noemi de Raffaele, 73, nodded and patted her back.

The two confidantes met 10 years ago in the chemotherapy room at La Liga’s headquarters. Both were housekeepers with no health insurance when they were diagnosed.

De Raffaele, diagnosed with a cancerous tumor between her clavicle and her breast, considered selling her home to pay her medical bills. Gonzalez considered moving back to Mexico because she feared not being able to pay for her stage II breast cancer treatment.

“There are no words for this place,” said de Raffaele, who is receiving monthly injections to prevent the return of her cancer. “Here, we never have to worry about absolutely anything.”

Both women continue to visit La Liga whenever they can, even after their treatments, to help out with other patients or anything else the staff might need.

“I wish I could win the lottery to come here whenever they need me,” said Gonzalez, who is happy to miss work to help out her second family.

La Liga isn’t just an adoptive family. Most of today’s board of directors can say their mothers were actively involved with La Liga decades ago in Cuba. Their children and grandchildren are also volunteers.

Piña’s two sons, Alexander and Christopher, now in their 30s, started as cangrejitos and continue to be involved today. Her three granddaughters, Sophia, 12; Carolina, 6; and Emma, 3, are also cangrejitas.

“That’s why La Liga is such a beautiful place — it goes from generation to generation,” said Piña.

The key to La Liga’s long generational history is its original founding in Cuba in 1925. The organization dissolved after the 1959 revolution, but found its way to South Florida with the thousands of Cubans who landed here in the years after the revolution.

“La Liga was big in Cuba,” said Adriana Cora, 73, executive vice president and a full-time volunteer for more than 40 years. “When we came here, it reminded the Cuban community that they had something connecting them to their past.”

According to Cora, a breast cancer survivor, many members are so committed to La Liga that they often continue to volunteer despite personal problems.

Cora continued her involvement after beating cancer. Piña continued volunteering despite her youngest son’s diving accident three years ago, which left him a quadriplegic. Alfonso continued after beating his testicular cancer eight years ago.

“I don’t think we think of ourselves as selfless,” said Cora. “It’s a privilege, an honor, to be here and do this.”

“Once you’re in La Liga,” Piña said, “you can never leave.”

For more information

La Contra el Cancer