Talk to any parent who has ever had a child diagnosed with cancer and there is one common theme between them.  Nothing ever prepares you to hear the word cancer or for the ensuing journey that will accompany the diagnosis.  It hits like a freight train, head on, leaving family members stunned and wounded but none the less left with the responsibility of forging a new track for their daily lives.

While advances in detection and treatment of cancers are helping thousands of children and young adults live longer, the short- and long-term effects of cancer have an impact on the entire family unit from every standpoint — physically, psychologically, educationally, cognitively, vocationally, spiritually, socially and financially.  One Pittsburgh non-profit has made it their mission to provide some peace amidst the chaos for hundreds of local families.

Lending Hearts provides emotional and social support to children and young adults with cancer, providing patients and their families’ access to unique community outreach events and activities that are educational, recreational and cultural.  The organization supports everything from lunches on the oncology floor of Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, to educational seminars and art therapy.

The organization also offers wildly popular, exclusive social gatherings for patients and their families. Often hosted at popular locations throughout the city, they always include something special for families like include behind the scenes tours or private meet & greets.  The goal – to provide these families a slight reprieve from the daily struggles of their illness, and create an opportunity for families to bond together and with other families in similar struggles.

This past Thursday, the organization held their 2017 Lending Hearts Gala at Fairmont Pittsburgh.

“The Lending Hearts Gala gives us the amazing opportunity to recognize people that show compassion and lend their heart to others that are in the fight against cancer,” says Jessica Tonti, who chaired the event with Mary Jo Capozzoli and Maggie Maloney.  “We are excited to share what Lending Hearts is doing and the impact this organization makes with people in our community, which is tremendously valuable.”

Guests of the event enjoyed dinner, live and silent auctions.  Highlights of the evening included the presentation of the Lending Hearts Friend Award to Pittsburgh Panthers running back, James Conner.  Conner, diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in December 2015, underwent six months of chemotherapy during his junior year and announced May of 2016 he was officially cancer-free.

“James personifies the mission of Lending Hearts,” said Lending Hearts Founder, Vasso Paliouras.  “He is much more than his diagnosis.  He inspires and motivates others in their fight against cancer.”

Honored with the Lending Hearts Ambassador Award was Jamie Guerry, also a cancer survivor. “Jamie knows first-hand the importance of peer support and that is why she continually shares the mission of Lending Hearts in the community,” said Vasso.  “We could not ask for someone better than her to advocate for those in the fight of their lives.  Both of our honorees have compassion and concern for others and are willing to lend their heart to others.  We applaud their spirit and passion.”

Two qualities that seem to run rampant with every person involved in this organization.  Event attendee and former intern, Abbey Mahla, was quick to cite why she continues to stay involved with Lending Hearts now that she is a nurse at St. Clair Hospital.

“Interning with Lending Hearts was one of the most rewarding experiences I endured throughout my four years of college,” commented Abbey. “There is something special about this organization.  Lending Hearts is not just the name but rather a selfless action each member takes pride in.  It will always hold a special place in my heart.”

The fundraiser marked a milestone for the organization which began in 2011.  Dr. Stanley M. Marks, MD,  a leading UPMC oncologist and advocate for cancer patients throughout the western Pennsylvania region served as the Honorary Chair of the 2017 Lending Hearts Gala.

“I have been fortunate to know Lending Hearts from their beginning and have watched the organization’s incredible growth over the past years.” said Marks.  “Five years is a huge accomplishment and this year’s gala serves as a great celebration of many successful years to come.”