Two Charlottesville families are going on the trip of a lifetime, thanks to a sweet surprise from a nonprofit that gives memorable vacations to sick kids.
On Monday at Panera Bread in Barracks Road Shopping Center, Baking Memories 4 Kids surprised the Fountain and Resch families with trips to Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, LEGOLAND and SeaWorld.
The trips each came with a giant, stuffed Mickey Mouse almost as big as the children themselves.
Baking Memories 4 Kids is a New York-based nonprofit founded by Frank Squeo, a cancer survivor who wanted to give back to families with kids dealing with severe illnesses and disabilities.
His organization raises money to send families on trips to major theme parks such as Walt Disney World. The trips cost an estimated $15,000 each.
“I had advanced-stage cancer 15 years ago and should have not survived. It was only by blessings and a miracle that I was able to get past that, but I knew there was a purpose for it. It wasn’t just a lucky break,” he said.
“I knew that God’s purpose for me was to not only help other people, but more importantly help children and help families that do not have the means to be able to get on the plane and do a life-changing trip,” Squeo said.
Levi Fountain, 9, is excited about his trip because he’ll have the chance to explore new theme parks.
“I’ve never been to LEGOLAND!” he said, while tossing his Mickey in the air. He’s said he’s also excited to ride the Spiderman ride at Universal Studios.
His older brother, Benjamin, is most excited to ride the Transformers ride at Universal Studios.
“My favorite Transformer is Bumblebee,” he said.
Levi and Benjamin both have Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a rare genetic disorder seen most often in boys. It causes progressive muscle weakness and atrophy. Many people with the condition don’t live past the age of 20.
“It’s been a big adjustment and difficulty for our family,” said Stephen Fountain, Levi and Benjamin’s dad. “Every time, every opportunity we get to be together is precious.”
Baking Memories 4 Kids primarily fundraises through its own sales of cookies, which are baked by hand in a warehouse in the basement of Squeo’s home. Since 2014, the organization has partnered with Blue Ridge Bread, a Charlottesville-based franchise of Panera Bread, to provide trips to a dozen local families over the last several years.
Customers are asked to round up their totals as a donation through the restaurant’s Change 4 Children initiative, which is in turn donated to the organization.
Hudson Resch, 6, has an extremely rare heart condition called hypoplastic right ventricle with pulmonary atresia.
Resch has already had three open heart surgeries and will likely have more down the line. His family is grateful that he is well enough to go on the trip.
“They always say it takes a village to raise a child, and it really took UVa Medical Center and the community to raise this child along with us and it’s really amazing to think about what he’s been through,” said Jacob Resch, Hudson’s dad. “To watch him, he’s an absolutely normal, soon-to-be 7-year-old but he has a congenital heart defect.”
Both families expressed their gratitude to the organization for making the trips possible.
“I think that I will always reflect on this and I will always be amazed at the generosity and the kindness and honestly, it’s a trip of a lifetime,” said Celestial Resch, Hudson’s mom.
“Down the road we’ll think about when we went to Disney and all of these wonderful stories that follow,” she said. “We’re just thankful that people like [Squeo] exist to come alongside us on our journey and give us an opportunity to have so many wonderful memories.”
Baking Memories 4 Kids accepts monetary donations at their website www.bakingmemories4kids.com/donate/. Volunteers can also sign up to host bake sales in their own communities to raise money for the organization.