Giovanni Villante loved to play sports — the Freeporter, who attends St. Christopher’s School in Baldwin, could be seen running the football field whenever he had the chance. “He has always been a sports kid,” said Jamie Iacono, a longtime family friend of Villante.
In June though, the energetic sixth-grader began to have difficulty breathing and coughing a lot. “He was losing a lot of weight,” Renee Villante, Giovanni’s mother, said. At first, doctors thought he had pneumonia but a more dire diagnosis was soon revealed — Giovanni had acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The news caused Renee Villante to collapse to the floor.
“It’s the words a parent never wants to hear,” Renee Villante said. “I was hurt, scared and in total disbelief.” Giovanni has a form of leukemia called acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a type of blood cancer that can spread to other parts of the body. The disease can be cured with treatment, and Giovanni is already in remission.
Giovanni is now homeschooled and cannot go play sports as he once did — his treatment calls for three years of chemotherapy. “To watch him now that he’s not able to get out and play, it breaks all of our hearts,” Iacono said.
When Baldwinite Steve Sciortino, owner of Delicious Moments Caterers, heard of Giovanni’s story he immediately wanted to help. The caterer, along with other businesses, organized a Nov. 30 benefit cruise to help raise money for the family.
The Sapphire Princess, a party boat, sailed around the canals of Freeport for about three hours as family and friends of the Villantes enjoyed music and food, and had the opportunity to enter into raffles for various prizes. Sciortino donated his catering services, and the owners of the Sapphire Princess operated the boat for the night free of charge.
DJ Collin Oliver, an Oceanside teenager who has performed professionally for two years, also donated his time to provide music for the night. Sciortino said he wanted to make sure 100 percent of the money raised went to the Villante family. “When I found out about Gio, I said we have to do something personal for them,” he said. A number of businesses also donated prizes that were raffled off throughout the night.
Renee Villante, with tears in her eyes, thanked those on the cruise for spending the night to help Giovanni, who recorded a short video message to tell everyone he appreciated their support.
Sciortino often caters events at St. Christopher’s, where Renee works as a secretary and her husband, Darren, is a custodian. He said he first heard of Giovanni’s story through the Baldwin-based Bradley Council of the Knights of Columbus. “A few of the members have children who have kids in the school,” he said.
It took some time though, he said, before he realized it was Renee’s child they were talking about. The two know each other through Sciortino’s work with the school. “I wasn’t putting two and two together that her son was Gio,” he said.
This is not Sciortino’s first time helping those with leukemia. He has raised money for The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, which funds cancer research, for the past eight years by participating in the Walt Disney World Half Marathon every January. Each year, he raises money in honor of a different person afflicted by the disease — he will honor Giovanni during the upcoming race.
The support for Giovanni has been overwhelming, Renee Villante said. She said the treatment has been tough not only on Giovanni, but the entire family. Her and her husband have taken extended breaks from work. “It’s a roller coaster ride,” she said. “You take it not even day-by-day but minute-by-minute because you never know what’s going to happen.”
Villante said she’s thankful for people like Iacono, who has helped care for her other children, including Giovanni’s twin brother and 13-year-old brother. The Villante family also has two older children, ages 23 and 27.