BRANDON -- Mary Ann Massolio never imagined her work as a pediatric oncology social worker would lead to starting a nonprofit that aids children battling cancer.
In 1993 she counseled parents whose children battled cancer in hospitals throughout the Tampa Bay area, informing them of available services.
Three years later, Massolio's 9-year-old son, Jay, a fourth grader at Nativity Catholic School in Brandon, was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. His battled ended on March 9, 1997.
"The irony is that the families I had been helping started helping me," said the longtime Brandon resident.
Reeling from the heart-wrenching loss, Massolio continued to interact regularly with other families throughout the community touched by childhood cancer. And while doing so, she saw the need for a centralized office that people could contact to help guide them toward receiving the psychological, social and financial assistance they needed.
In 2008, Massolio's vision led her to establishing the 1Voice Foundation, a Brandon-based nonprofit organization that serves as a direct resource center for family members of children battling cancer in hospitals throughout West Central Florida.
Massolio, its only full-time employee, joins board members to lobby for children with cancer in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C.
"For me this is not a job. It is a passion," Massolio said.
That passion has led to 1Voice Academy, a school exclusively for children with cancer that aims to open in Tampa in early 2019. The school will serve infants and children through age 18 in a sterile, supportive environment where there will be a full-time on-site nurse. Teachers will design individualized educational plans to accommodate each student's specific needs.
Additionally, there will be after-school tutoring and recreational opportunities for the children at the school, and in the evenings and on weekends many of 1Voice Foundation's support groups and other programs will be held on the campus. The collaborative project involves the Hillsborough County School District, Faces of Courage Foundation, Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute, Tampa General Hospital and the University of South Florida's College of Medicine and College of Education.
"Jay is my inspiration for opening the school," said Massolio, noting that he missed school on many occasions due to hospitalizations, clinical appointments, the side effects of chemotherapy and low blood counts that indicated his high level of susceptibility to other illnesses commonly found among students in conventional schools.
Massolio also hopes the school will provide a solution for parents who lose income when they take time off from work without pay to care for their sick kids with low immune systems.
Moreover, because Pediatric research is another important focus of the 1Voice Foundation, Massolio is proud to have Dr. Cameron Tebbi, founder of the Children's Cancer Research Group Laboratories in northwest Tampa, as a board member and strong supporter of the organization's 1Voice Academy project.
Tebbi, 75, is a retired professor of pediatrics and division chief of hematology/oncology at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine, founder of the Children's Cancer Research Group Laboratories in northwest Tampa and the former director of those specialties at Tampa General Hospital.
"You really feel for the children (who have cancer) and the parents," said Tebbi, who, in collaboration with Moffitt, spends every weekday and some weekends, doing research toward the development of a vaccine to prevent leukemia.
The 1Voice Foundation receives no government financial assistance. Instead it is funded by grants, local sports team partnerships, donations from other area organizations and frequent fundraisers. Its services include support efforts for patients, their siblings and their parents. Newsome High School's 1Voice Club contributes with weekly tutoring and arts and craft sessions for patients, and they also interact with children of parents who attend 1Voice Foundation's monthly Voices of Angels bereavement support program at Shriners Hospitals for Children – Tampa.
The student organization includes Newsome High School freshman Natalie Santiago, 13, who was diagnosed with Non Hodgkins lymphoma but is now in remission.
Heather Fisher, the mother of 8-year-old Shanella who was diagnosed with an adult form of leukemia in May of this year, learned about 1Voice and its various support groups via Facebook.
"Actually I was looking online for different opportunities for Shanella because I believe 90 percent of recovery is mindset and I wanted to keep her happy and healthy," Fisher said.
She's since enrolled her daughter in the T.O.T.S. (Together Oncology Toddlers) program primarily meant for pre-school children. But she chose this group because Shanella tends to get along well with young people, especially babies.
Her daughter really looks forward to attending the weekly program, also facilitated by Massolio.
"Mary Ann gives me a place to feel free and have fun. I need that," Shanella said.
Visit www.1voicefoundation.org or call (813) 787-3042 for more information.