Foundation Helps Children In Need, Keeps Woman's Memory Alive
By MELISSA PIONZIO
May 15, 2010
What began with a memorial cliff walk in Newport, R.I., on Aug. 15, 2002 — the day Andréa Rizzo would have turned 25 — has evolved into a multifaceted charity organization that honors the young woman's life and carries out her unfinished dreams.
Rizzo, who survived childhood cancer and who loved dancing and teaching children with special needs, was killed by a drunken driver in May 2002. Her mother, Susan Rizzo Vincent, was devastated by the loss of her only child, but she was determined to keep Andréa's memory alive. She formed the Andréa Rizzo Memorial Foundation to carry on her daughter's goal of providing dance therapy to children with cancer and special needs.
The foundation has become Vincent's focal point.
"She may not be here, but this is keeping her dream and her memory alive," said Vincent, a veteran teacher at Memorial School in East Hampton, which Rizzo attended. "The foundation is such a part of who I am because children have been such a part of my life's focus and Andréa's focus."
The cliff walk was the first official foundation fundraiser, organized by Rizzo's friends and family. Rizzo attended Salve Regina University in Newport.
The foundation now hosts dozens of annual fundraisers, boasts the support of several celebrities and funds dance therapy programs at hospitals and schools from Connecticut to California.
The Andréa Rizzo Memorial Foundation has funded a program at the Connecticut Children's Medical Center in Hartford since 2007. During a recent session, 8-year-old Prospect resident Justin DaSilva smiled mischievously from his hospital bed as dance therapist Sharon Mulcahy turned on a Bee Gees classic and extended her hand to dance. Justin, who has been treated for cancer at the hospital since November, happily obliged.
"We are so fortunate to have the foundation to support us," said Ann Kollegger, coordinator of the hospital's arts program. "It adds that other element of movement and serves kids who are able to do activities. Sharon is able to work with them on their own terms."
Mulcahy, a retired schoolteacher, once taught Rizzo to dance at Studio 62 in East Hampton, which she owned for 20 years before becoming a licensed dance therapist. At the hospital, Mulcahy offers individual therapy to children of various ages, needs and abilities. Parents also participate.
"When mom and dad are dancing with us, it gives them the chance to do something happy with their child in a non-stressful situation," said Mulcahy, who also provides dance therapy and movement sessions at Memorial School.
"There are physiological connections between moving and healing," Kollegger said. "When kids are sick, their movement is limited, so what they are able to do provides a sense of accomplishment."
Dance Across America
Through the foundation's Dance Across America initiative, dozens of dance schools across the country host events to raise funds for therapy programming. Dance schools that raise at least $5,000 can select a school or hospital to receive a foundation grant. The first was the Memorial Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, where Rizzo was treated as a child and had hoped to work as a dance therapist.
"Dance Across America is so much fun to watch grow," Vincent said. "I got a call from a dance school in Colorado and they raised $10,000, so now I'm in the throes of setting up a pediatric dance therapy program at Memorial Hospital" in Colorado Springs.
In addition to teaching, Vincent regularly attends and plans foundation events, such as an upcoming dance exhibition in New York City. Each year has brought new initiatives and supporters.
"In February 2007, my work-study students from Salve Regina made contact with 'Dancing with the Stars' and in July, I received an e-mail from the show's producer," Vincent said.
The producer offered Vincent tickets to the show, which she gave to a pediatric patient at Sloane-Kettering through the foundation. At the show, Vincent met judge Carrie Ann Inaba, who is now the foundation's national spokesman. Another supporter is actress Jane Seymour, who donated artwork to the foundation from her Open Heart collection and invited Vincent to share her story at the launch of her Open Heart website www.keepanopenheart.com.
The foundation can be consuming, Vincent said, but it keeps her connected to her daughter.
"When you are doing something you have a passion for, it does not feel like work. It also gives me solace in knowing this is something, in a way, that Andréa and I are doing together," Vincent said. "The way the foundation has evolved and the connections that I have made, I really feel that this has been heaven sent."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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