Six months after her birth, Sarah Panozzo's parents, Jim and Joanne, became concerned. It was at that time the Panozzos noticed several strange marks on their daughter's neck. Joanne, a pediatric nurse, was concerned it could be some thing serious.
Eventually, doctors confirmed their fears, Sarah was born with neurofibromatosis, a progressive disorder that causes tumors to form on nerves anywhere in the body at any time throughout an individual’s lifetime. The tumors can cause chronic pain, disfigurement, deafness, blindness and death. NF is linked to many of the most common forms of cancer, brain tumors and learning disabilities.
At 6 months old, one tumor had grown on Sarah's optic nerve, causing blindness in one eye. Sarah underwent her first chemotherapy at the age of 1. Doctors are currently monitoring a small growth in her cerebellum.
To fund research for NF and help raise funds for the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, the Panozzos began planning the “Smiles for Sarah” benefit. The benefit, which is set for Sunday, Oct. 21, will take place from 9 to 11 a.m. At the Central Park Pavilion in Oak Forest.
During the benefit attendees will either walk or run for a hike; the event will also feature snacks and live music during the entire event. Jim Panozzo said that with Sarah graduating from 8th grade at St. Damian's this year, the event could change dramatically in the future.
“This is the last year we're doing it as a hike," he said. "We're going to go to a different formula. We're still going to raise money for the hospital, but it'll have a different look. It's kind of a bittersweet thing to end this year."
Panozzo said that benefit originally started out as a 5K, but that it eventually turned into the hike it is today to include entire families that wanted to attend.
In its 11 years, the benefit has raised over $200,000—an outstanding feat, Pannozzo said.
“When we first started out, we didn't know where it was going to go," he said. "We're over $200,000 in 11 years. Even in the last four years, when the economy has been down, we've raised over $15,000 each year."
This year there will be a $15 fee for individuals and $40 per family, which includes the cost of a t-shirt, although registration must be completed before Oct. 11 to ensure a t-shirt. During the event, there will be snacks, live music, bean bags, raffles and a silent auction.
For more information about the benefit, call (708) 687-9846. A registration form for the benefit can be found here.