The general manger of a local restaurant that held a fundraiser earlier this month to help the family of a 16-year-old Fort Lee boy who received a heart transplant in June presented the family with a check for $1,000 Monday.
The donation resulted from a three-day fundraiser Gene Bazzarelli of Franco’s Metro called “Dining for Johnny,” during which the restaurant donated 15 percent of people's checks if they brought in the flyer for the event.
Bazzarelli, whose cousin is one of John Damato’s teachers at Fort Lee High School, said he was pleased with the turnout in spite of the event having taken place shortly after Sandy and during the snowstorm that followed.
Bazzarelli said he didn’t know John or his family until his cousin, Ms. Bernardo, who also tutored John at home last year, approached him and asked if he would put up a flyer for a donor awareness and blood drive the teen was planning.
“We met in the pizza section; we talked briefly, and I knew right away that this is a Fort Lee family, and this is something we can actually get involved in and make some kind of an impact on—even if it’s a small amount—and contribute something,” Bazzarelli said. “They told me a little about their hardships, and we decided it would be best if we could have the community come out and really represent the whole ‘Dining for Johnny’ thing. And it worked out great.”
He added, “I didn’t think putting a poster up for the blood drive was enough.”
John said that when he heard what Bazzarelli was planning to do, he was “really happy.”
He also said he’s been feeling better, although the road to recovery still promises to be a long one, and that he has his “good days,” when he’s not so tired and can get out and get some exercise, and his “off days,” when he just feels like sleeping.
“Basically it’s an ongoing process, and every day that you get through is a blessing,” said John’s mother, Rita Damato. “They’re hoping that he’ll get stronger and stronger, and that he’ll be able to start doing more.”
She said it’s been a difficult adjustment for her son, who returned to school in September, in part because he still has to go to the doctor regularly and receive treatments like catheterizations, but also because he has to take medications like steroids that have caused his body to change.
“You’re home for a year, and then you go back and people see him differently than what they remember him being like,” Damato said. “People are not cognizant of the fact that when you have a heart transplant, it doesn’t mean that you’re [healthy]. It’s been hard for him.”
She said she met with high school administrators and counselors to discuss educating students not only about John’s condition, but also those of kids who suffer from other serious medical conditions or disabilities.
“It’s really important that the kids understand,” Damato said.
According to Bazzarelli, Franco’s has done fundraisers in the past—they held one for Susan G. Komen for the Cure, for example—but “Dining for Johnny” was the first time they’ve held one “for one of our own in Fort Lee.”
“It was a great turnout and something we would definitely do again,” he said, and, turning to John and Rita Damato, added, “It’s $1,000 that hopefully you can use toward your medical expenses or anything you need it to cover.”