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Supporting a fallen classmate

James’s Angels keeps a warrior’s memory alive

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James Lodato left an impact on his classmates with the jokes he told, his love of baseball and the unfettered joy with which he lived the last year of his life.

When he started second grade at Forest Lake Elementary School in the fall of 2017, James was diagnosed with a rare soft-tissue cancer called alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma. He died the following May.

“I think he was so joyful to be in his situation and still be so happy,” said Isabella Simon, 11, one of his classmates. “I don’t think he deserved any of this, but he was very strong and he was definitely a warrior.”

Last month, the Wantagh community dedicated a new baseball field to James at the elementary school, naming it the James Lodato Field of Dreams. The opening coincided with another community project. Isabella and the rest of Girl Scout Troop 3105 dedicated their Bronze Award project to him, naming it James’s Angels. Throughout the school year, they collected toys and gifts that they donated to the John Theissen Children’s Foundation last month. 

They also created a children’s book that tells James’s life story and includes facts about pediatric cancer, tips on how to support children with life-threatening illnesses and a list of nonprofits that support children with cancer. The scouts recently donated two copies of the book to the Wantagh Public Library, one to the Theissen Foundation and one to James’s parents, Christine and Jimmy Lodato.

When the girls contacted his parents to ask permission to do the project, Christine “was just so touched by them wanting to do this,” said Isabella’s mother, troop leader Nicole Denn-Simon.

Laney Gonzalez and Remy McCarthy, both 11, wrote the book’s introduction; twins Marissa and Olivia Reber, 11, researched facts about pediatric cancer; and Isabella and Lexi Chorzepa, 10, created a page of tips and resources to support children with cancer. They each designed an angel for the front cover of the book, and selected a combination that included Isabella’s body and Laney’s wings.

“Here’s the book that we made,” Isabella said, showing each page to a Herald reporter. “And that’s James,” she said, revealing a photo of a smiling young boy with no hair.

“He would always play jokes on us, like hiding in the closet during lunch and jumping out to scare us,” said Olivia, who was also in James’s second-grade class.

“He kept wanting to come to school and he kept on fighting to come to school,” Isabella said, “but in May 2018, he sadly passed away.”

The Girl Scouts made the decision to donate to the JTCF by this May in James’s honor, and also because it’s a time of year when the foundation is in need of support. According to John Theissen, the organization receives most of its donations around the winter holidays and the start of school. But many children go without toys or gifts in between spring and September.

Troop 3105 filled a truck with their donations, and had more left over. In addition to family and friends, the girls received most of their donations by sharing their project on social media on the Wantagh Moms Facebook group. They also received many donations from James’s former teachers.

“We live in a very caring community,” said Denn-Simon.

When pandemic restrictions loosen, Theissen plans to take the Girl Scout troop on a tour through the hospitals he supports, so they can interact with the children in the pediatric cancer units.

Theissen became a mentor to the girls during their project, and explained to them why he launched the foundation, a story that began in 1988, when he was 17 and hospitalized with a brain tumor. He had successful surgery at what was then Schneider Children’s Hospital in New Hyde Park, where he befriended a 7-year-old girl named Tasha who had a terminal illness. She inspired him to devote his life to improving the lives of children in hospitals by donating toys and gifts to make their stay more enjoyable.

“I learned that the smallest act of kindness, whether it’s holding their hand or telling them a joke, could make a difference in their fight and make them stronger and happier,” Olivia said.

Lexi added, “I learned that certain kids don’t really get a lot, and some kids don’t even have family visiting them in the hospitals, so it’s good that we donated a lot of toys.”