By Jean Redstone
Young Mario Carpino did not start out as the mayor — or, for that matter, as a community organizer and mega-fundraiser. He was just a four-year-old kid.
He was a four-year-old kid whose mom, Anna, noticed her son couldn’t move his arm one day and took him to the emergency room to find out why. The eventual diagnosis for the Woolwich family was shattering.
Anna and Pasquale Carpino were told their charming, bright-eyed toddler had a huge mass on his brain stem and at several other sites.
Doctors could offer no treatment and sadly told his parents they had perhaps three months before Mario died. “We were beside ourselves,” Anna said. “It was crazy, out of nowhere. We fought like hell for treatment.”
The growths were not cancer but benign tumors, the result of a disease known as NF1, or neurofibromatosis, which attacks the body’s nerve system. The tumors, though benign, were nonetheless deadly.
“People don’t understand that benign tumors are still dangerous,” Anna explained. “They were brain tumors and growing, just as cancer does.” But these tumors were known to sometimes respond to treatment.
Mario, barely a pre-schooler, began chemotherapy that lasted 18 months. “It was so rough on him, on his body,” Anna recalled. But it worked. A scan revealed the tumors had begun, just a little, to shrink.
“Oh my God, it was awesome,” Anna said. “There were tears and joy!”
Then, as is sometimes common with tumors, they started growing back less than a year later. Her son began another round of chemotherapy before he even settled into first grade. The toxic drugs caused numerous problems, from a hip infection requiring surgery to painful nerve endings.
“We couldn’t even hug him. A touch would hurt him,” Anna said. “Our son was sick and we couldn’t hug him.”
The family took Mario to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) where he endured four more years of chemotherapy that ended in 2012. His disease is under control and he’s considered stable but he has been left with some problems, such as needing special glasses to see well.
Mario “is a fighter,” his mother said, but at CHOP they had an additional name for him. “He was known as ‘The Mayor’,” she laughed. “He would be friendly with everyone, very loving. He’d go right up and hug people. He’s a hugger.”
It was also at CHOP that The Mayor initiated his career as a community organizer and fundraiser par excellence. He was waiting with his mother for a chemo session, sitting at the Alex J. Scott day hospital, which was built with funds from the Alex’s Lemonade Foundation.
His mother had told Mario about Alexandra Scott, the girl from Philadelphia who was diagnosed with brain cancer at one year old. He knew that at about four years old, she opened a lemonade stand to raise money to fight pediatric cancer. Before she died at age eight, her idea had raised $1 million nationwide.
“He has lost a lot of friends (many made through CHOP) and sometimes he talked about them and wished they weren’t in heaven, so I said, ‘Absolutely.’ ” Mario was six.
Thus began the community organizing. Mario did not think in terms of a table outside the driveway with a pitcher of lemonade and some paper cups. He wanted his lemonade stand at the Woolwich Fire House because firefighting, the uniforms and equipment and especially the trucks, has always been Mario’s passion. At Christmas time of the year he was diagnosed, Woolwich Fire Company sent Santa on a fire truck to cheer little Mario.
Mario’s parents reached out to the fire company and it embraced the idea. “That guy loves fire trucks,” Fire Chief Ed Barber said. “We fell in love with Mario and his family that day we brought Santa to his house and he asked for a ride on the truck. There’s something about him, about them. We’re a family. We gave the OK right away and we’ve done it every year since.”
His family, mom, dad, and younger brother Lorenzo, now 9, became part of Mario’s efforts. The family put up flyers, asked local businesses for donations or for gift baskets to auction off, and set up a Facebook page and a page at Alexslemonade.org (search for ‘Mario’) where donors could make contributions to Mario’s lemonade stand. They raised $20,000 the first year.
“The community came out to support Mario for the cancer fight,” Barber said. “We’re all a big part of the lemonade stand.” He said he wears the blue shirt with the ‘Mario’s Fight’ logo that identifies supporters of the annual fund drive, and he painted a “For Mario” logo on a race car he takes to the Bridgeport Speedway.
Barber chuckled at the nickname CHOP had bestowed upon Mario. “The Mayor. I can see it,” he said. “He’s very special to us. It’s Mario. You gotta love Mario,”
The fire folk are not alone in this assessment. Sergeant Anthony Verrilli of the Woolwich Police Department stopped one day a few years ago because he saw the Carpino family out playing. “I was on patrol but I knew who he was so I stopped to meet him,” he said.
He met Mario and fell under the Carpino umbrella, as it were. “If you haven’t had a chance to meet him, you definitely should. An amazing, amazing person. He’s a rock star in our community…we see him as a local celebrity.”
And speaking of celebrities, two years ago Jon Bon Jovi, having heard about the Mario’s lemonade stand success, dropped by the stand as a surprise to his fan, Mario. It went a long way to spreading the name recognition, which is what a successful fund-raiser needs.
In fact, Mario, with his family, has been hugely successful through the goodness of the community that has rallied around him. He is just shy of raising $300,000 in the five years since the first lemonade stand opened. That’s right. $300,000!
It is not lost on the national Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation. “He’s a superstar,” enthused Heather Malandra, a community engagement specialist (their terminology) for the foundation. “It’s very exciting that he’s been able to do this.” Malandra said.
Mario (and family) are “considered a Grandstand Host for raising $5 grand over a three-year period or more,” she added Not as catchy a title as ‘Mayor’ but certainly within context.
On June 11 Mario, Lorenzo, Anna and Pasquale Carpino will host the Sixth Annual Mario’s Lemonade Stand at – you guessed it – the Woolwich Fire House, 1517 Kings Highway, Swedesboro. If the past is prologue, there will be a country fair atmosphere with bake sales, a Chinese auction of goodies baskets (I have baskets piled up in my living room,” exclaimed Anna. “It’s a joyous time for me.”) and various activities.
Lorenzo is likely to be, now and then, in the hot seat of the dunking tank and visitors could well include the Phillie Phanatic, Eagles cheerleaders, motorcycle clubs and who knows who else.
And lemonade. There will definitely be lemonade sold. The fire company does not take a rental fee and all proceeds go to Alex’s Lemonade Foundation, a charity granted four out of four stars by Charitynavigator.com.
Anna, considered the driving force behind the outreach effort to raise money, constantly and consistently insists on crediting the local community. And her religious faith. “What got us through (his diagnosis and treatment) is our faith in God, our prayers,” she said. “And we have a wonderful community. They all came together for someone they didn’t even know. And they keep doing it. It’s one of the best, most remarkable things in our lives.”
But what does “The Mayor” think of the success of his idea? Mario, now 12 and in grade 6, spoke a little shyly, then gathered confidence. “It means a lot to me. If we hadn’t had the community behind us…this is all through people who donate money and people who donate stuff like auction baskets. Thank you so much for donating.”
Mario, who has not wavered in his desire to be a firefighter, is only two years away from joining the Junior firefighters and his mother sees a long future for him in such community service. “He has always loved the fire department,” she said.
But it was her son who gathered the threads of his young life together when he answered the questions: Why did you want to open a lemonade stand in the first place? and Why be a firefighter?
He answered the first quietly, simply. “I had too many friends who died of cancer.”
He answered the second the same way. “I would rather risk my life for somebody else.”