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Teen fighting cancer meets pope, starts nonprofit charity
Gino Vizzi and family form P4 Foundation to help children with illnesses
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David Vizzi, 58, and his 17-year-old son, Gino, created the P4 Foundation to help children like Gino deal with terminal illness. Recently, thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Gino and his family were flown to the Vatican to meet Pope Francis. The Vizzis are members of Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Flowery Branch.

P4 Foundation

What: Founded in 2014, the nonprofit works with children and families impacted by childhood cancer to provide support, hope and faith-filled encouragement. It also financially supports research for childhood cancer treatments and cures through direct contributions and special fundraising events.

Mailing address: PO Box 842, Buford, GA 30515

Phone: 844-PRAYFOR (772-9367)

Email: info@p4foundation.org

Website: www.p4foundation.org

Facebook: www.facebook.com/P4foundation.org?ref=ts

Twitter: @Pray4foundation

Standing among hundreds of thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square, 17-year-old Gino Vizzi was “awe struck” as Pope Francis descended the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica and headed straight for him.

“My eyes grew bigger and bigger and my heart was beating really fast,” said Gino, who attends Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Flowery Branch.

Pope Francis then walked to Gino, leaned into him and said “Pray for me,” Gino said, recounting his face-to-face encounter with the pontiff Oct. 21 at the Vatican in Italy.

Gino, a senior at Mills Creek High School in Hoschton, was among several people meeting the head of the Catholic church that day. He explained he was seated in front of a barricade, allowing him an up close and personal meeting with Pope Francis. While behind him and a small wall, 150,000 people could only see the pontiff.

“It’s something I cannot describe,” Gino said after meeting the pope.

Gino was granted the special access to the pontiff thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The charitable organization grants wishes to children between 2« and 18 years old who have a life-threatening medical condition, according to its website (wish.org). Vizzi was diagnosed with an incurable form of leukemia in September 2014 and was approached by the organization in February about making a wish.

“I thought he was going to ask to meet Derek Jeter or something like that,” Gino’s father, David Vizzi said, noting his son loves baseball and plays on his high school’s varsity squad in Gwinnett County.

But upon hearing his then-16-year-old’s request to meet the pope at the Vatican in Italy, David swelled with pride.

“It was surreal,” he said. “It could be anybody he could want to meet. It made me feel so proud as a father that his faith is priority No. 1 in his life.”

But it was not the first time Gino has surprised and inspired his father.

DIAGNOSED WITH CANCER

Last fall, Gino started noting some peculiar bruises on his body that were not related to playing baseball. His friends also noticed their Italian friend’s pale complexion.

“I was getting terrible headaches,” the Dacula teenager said. “Anytime I would eat something, I felt it would come back up on me.”

David Vizzi said he thought his son was not getting enough sleep and was being a little lazy. But when the symptoms including a persistent cough did not subside, Gino finally saw a doctor.

The doctor’s office treated him for allergies, but Gino’s mother ToniAnn insisted on a more thorough exam.

“She said get some blood work done,” Gino said.

Her request was indispensable. After two rounds of tests, doctors told ToniAnn to get Gino “to the hospital as fast as you can.”

In the car ride there, Gino said he knew something was wrong. He revealed to his mom he thought he might have cancer. His thoughts proved true.

Gino was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia, a slowly progressing blood and bone marrow disease that usually occurs during or after middle age, according to the National Cancer Institute website (www.cancer.gov). It also rarely occurs in children.

“One in 2 million kids will get this cancer,” Gino said, with David adding the number comes from the National Cancer Institute.

Doctors wanted to immediately start treating Gino, which meant an extended hospital stay. Upon hearing his son would not return home for the night, David crumpled into tears.

“I lost it,” the 58-year-old father of two said. “I was bawling crying.”

His wife, on the other hand, remained calm.

“My wife turned to the doctors and said ‘What do we need to do next?” David said, recounting the conversation inside the hospital room at Egleston Hospital for Children Atlanta.

Gino’s reaction was not something either of his parents expected after the initial shock.

“Gino said, ‘Dad, I got this. I got this for a reason,’” David said.

Then his oldest proposed an idea that would change the family forever.

A FAMILY’S PURPOSE

Within an hour of learning he had leukemia — which requires him to take a pill form of chemo for the rest of his life — Gino Vizzi decided to start a foundation for children like himself.

“I thought if I made this foundation, it would help me cope with my condition and I would have a positive outlook on life,” Gino said.

And the P4 Foundation was born. The nonprofit works directly with children and families impacted by childhood cancer to provide support, hope and faith-filled encouragement. It also financially supports research for childhood cancer treatments and cures, according to the P4 Foundation website (www.p4foundation.org.) The mission is accomplished through direct contributions and fundraisers, such as an upcoming softball tournament Nov. 14 at Signature Park in Hoschton.

But the organization’s overarching goal is to “pray for” (P4) the children and their families, said David Vizzi, who runs the foundation with his family and a wide range of business professionals.

David said his son’s announcement to start a foundation to help others gave him a direction to fight for not only his son, but others.

“It was my therapy,” he said. “I have a passion for it because it’s for my son.”

Gino quickly added the foundation has brought his already tight-knit family even closer. In fact, each person has a role in the foundation. While Gino visits with and talks to children with cancer, his 12-year-old sister speaks to the siblings.

“His sister always brings something for the sibling,” David said, explaining his daughter has felt left out at some points with all the focus being on Gino and his treatment.

But she is also protective of her older brother.

“She will say ‘Dad, he’s got cancer. Leave him alone,” David said.

ToniAnn, who Gino says is a great Italian cook, usually offers food to the family in need. And David, who is a partner and CEO with FNG Inc. and ARSCCS, manages the foundation’s finances.

“This has brought us close in our purpose as a family,” David said. “And it has helped with our spiritual beliefs.”

Since its formation, the P4 Foundation has helped 60 families and has designated 11 children as P4 kids. They are the ones who Gino has a personal connection to and talks to them regularly.

SPIRITUAL GUIDANCE

However, the family has not relied only on themselves. David and Gino said Prince of Peace Catholic Church’s priest Father Eric Hill has been a mentor in their time of need. In fact, Hill was the only person Gino wanted to see after learning he had leukemia, David said.

“He came in and blessed me,” Gino said, pointing out he views Hill more like an uncle than a priest and spiritual leader. “And no matter how I’m feeling, he can still put a smile on my face.”

Hill shied away from that description, noting his is “just a fatherly figure.”

“As a priest I am a father to many ... to all of my parishioners,” the priest said in an email to The Times. “As I spend time with my people, I am invited to many life-changing moments with them and very much become a part of the family.”

Hill also accompanied the family to Italy on his own dime to act as a supporter and ultimately tour guide. His pace around the city alone tired the Vizzi family.

“You can’t keep up with Father Eric,” Gino said, shaking his head and remembering the miles the family walked around Rome.

Hill said he accompanied the family to Rome for two reasons.

“I was invited and Gino wanted me to be a part of this experience with them,” he said.

Because of his attendance, the Vizzi family said they “got to jump to the front of the lines” at some places. Some of Gino’s favorite sights were the Vatican Museum, which features Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.

But the highlight of the trip was meeting Pope Francis, Gino said, who asked the pontiff to bless him.

“He made the sign of the cross on my forehead,” Vizzi said. “And I felt this rush go through my whole body. I felt holy and pure. And I felt like the cancer was gone.”

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