The gymnasium at Levy-Lakeside Elementary School in Merrick was filled with the sound and excitement of fourth- through sixth-grade students enjoying the school’s annual Dance-a-Thon on March 31. At the celebration, however, there were members of the Merrick community whose role in the event made it more than an after-school dance. It was a very serious activity.
Jake Lonigro, an eighth-grade student at Merrick Avenue Middle School, whose name was printed on T-shirts worn by his peers, is a hip-hop dancer who recently returned to his passion, two years after he was diagnosed with abdominal cancer.
Handing out snacks and drinks at the event was Jill Levine, the mother of two Levy-Lakeside students and the founder of the Robbie Levine Foundation. Named after her son who died in 2005, the Robbie Levine Foundation provides automated external defibrillators to schools.
Each year, the Student Council creates a list of charities, and students vote for two to which they would like to donate. This year the Dance-a-Thon raised $2,842 for Cancer Care and $2,855 for the Robbie Levine Foundation.
A lifesaving domino effect
“These charities are really close to home,” said Soo Becchina, the student council adviser and a Levy-Lakeside special-education teacher. She called the origin of the Robbie Levine Foundation “one of the saddest days in our school’s history.”
Robbie Levine was a fourth-grader at Levy-Lakeside in September 2005 when his heart stopped during a Little League practice. There was no AED on the field to resuscitate him, and he died. Jill Levine and her husband, Craig, wanted to prevent such an event from happening in the future, and started the Robbie Levine Foundation. Since its inception, the organization has donated AEDs to schools around the world.
The organization also offers AED, cardiopulmonary resuscitation and first-aid training in middle and high schools across Long Island. Jill smiled and pointed to a recent Herald article featuring Calhoun High School senior Zahrah Ibrahim, who revived her grandmother, Graciela, at a basketball game. Levine said that her foundation is the reason students like Zahrah learn CPR. “We keep hearing these stories…,” she said, pausing to gather her thoughts. “The more students we train, the more life-savers there are worldwide.”
Levine’s daughter Samantha, also known as Sami, Levine, is a sixth-grader at Levy-Lakeside and the secretary of the student council. When she proposed donating to the Robbie Levine Foundation to her peers, they unanimously voted in favor of the plan. At the event, she danced with her sister, Riley, a Levy-Lakeside fifth-grader.
Can’t stop dancing
Lonigro has danced for the past seven years at the Jennifer Napolitano School of Performing Arts in Seaford. His favorite style is hip-hop, and his favorite rap artist, Future. His biggest accomplishment to date, he said, was landing an audition on Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance: The Next Generation.” It was during the audition, two years ago, that Lonigro felt discomfort and bloating in his stomach. After seeing a doctor, he was diagnosed with an abdominal cancer , in the form of desmoplastic small round cell tumor. He had to give up the opportunity with Fox and started chemotherapy at Sloan Kettering Memorial Cancer Center in Manhattan.
Cancer Care is a national organization that provides people like Lonigro with resources and services, ranging from finding support groups to establishing financial plans for affordable treatment.
Levy-Lakeside donated to Cancer Care to honor Lonigro. Today he is finishing treatment, and said that his doctors have stopped detecting cancer cells. When asked if he planned to continue to dance, Lonigro responded without hesitation: “Nothing will ever stop me.”