In many ways, Nick LaBarbara is a typical 13-year-old kid, doing typical things.
He likes to fish and is big into video games and Legos — so much so that he spent a good part of the summer building the entire Lord of the Rings set. He's not too much into scary stuff, but he does get a kick out of making crazy zombie movies with his friends and his little sister Hannah, 10, in his back yard and in the wooded area down the street. And now that he's recouped some of his energy, the eighth-grader is back to playing soccer at Powell Middle School in Hernando County.
He's also doing his best to beat cancer, for the third time around.
"Nick has a good attitude toward it," said his mom, Lina LaBarbara. "He says, 'We'll just do what we have to do.' "
He's got more than a few people in his corner with the same thought.
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The first time it was acute lymphoblastic leukemia, diagnosed after Nick's parents noticed strange bruises on his body when he was just 15 months old. That was followed by a two-and-a-half-year protocol of chemotherapy, and everyone thought it was finally over and done with. The family went out celebrate after what was supposed to be Nick's final run of tests, only to come home to the news that errant leukemia cells had been found in his spinal fluid. Then came another two and a half years of treatment, this time adding cranial radiation to rounds of chemo.
Seven years of remission and a blessedly normal childhood followed before Nick started complaining of headaches. Then came the new diagnosis: a grade 3 astrocytoma brain tumor, likely caused by the cranial radiation used to battle the leukemia.
"Nick is three months out of surgery and getting back to his old self," said his mom. "He doesn't have all his energy back, but he's a lot better than he was a month ago. He's happy about being back to school. He still wears his cap, but his hair is growing back."
But there's still a ways to go.
Next week the family will trek to North Carolina to get a second opinion on upcoming treatment from doctors at the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke University Medical Center.
That means they won't be able to attend the fundraiser being held for Nick.
"We feel bad about not being able to be there," LaBarbara said. "But we plan to Skype in."
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Gulf High language arts teacher Tanya Fuss is hoping the music will bring people out. Well, that and the wings, and the 50/50 raffles and the silent auction and the big, warm thought behind the benefit planned for Saturday at the Beef O'Brady's at Connerton in Land O'Lakes.
"It really adds up — you have no idea what things cost when you're not in it," said Fuss, who became friends with Nick's parents while all were teaching at Gulf High. "We decided we need to do something to help."
Teachers, administrators and students from Land O'Lakes and Gulf High are the latest to hop on the "Team Nick" bandwagon, established months ago by the school community in Hernando County that hosted various fundraisers to offset the family's medical expenses and founded a trust in Nick's name.
"We have felt the most poured-out love from the beginning, through friends and family members," Lina LaBarbara said. "It's unbelievable. It's like wow — just wow."
There is, no doubt, a neat connection that runs through the schools. Gulf High is where Nick's parents first met, while both were teaching and forging friendships with fellow teachers like Fuss and choral director Amy Riddle. Two years ago Lina LaBarbara took the job as media specialist at Land O'Lakes High, where Riddle is now an assistant principal. Troy LaBarbara went to Hernando to take an administrative role at Brooksville's Central High, and now serves as principal at Weeki Wachee High.
Riddle, Fuss and others have taken the name "Team Nick, Pasco," bringing others on to help with Saturday's fundraiser.
Public Ed, a band composed of Pasco educators, will entertain along with Stone Grey (formerly Culprit), made up of Land O'Lakes High students who play regularly at Beef O'Brady's. Restaurant owner Mike Connor is chipping in 10 percent of sales. Others have donated gift certificates and items to be raffled and auctioned off, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to Nick's trust.
"We have lots of items big and small," said Fuss, citing a list ranging from bath items, an elliptical machine and autographed sports memorabilia. "We've had a huge response from people who really want to help. That's the great thing about the schools here in Pasco — we're like one big family."