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ROOTED IN LOVE, FOUNDATION THRIVES

In the three years that the Chantal Avin Rosen Foundation has been passing out money, it has quietly done some amazing deeds to help people with excessive medical bills.

Thanks to the foundation: A 15-year-old Silver Creek girl who was severely injured in a car accident can live at home, rather than in a group home, with the $15,000 donated for a wheelchair-accessible addition. A young mother of two was able to afford hip surgery because of the $17,500 that she received. A Niagara County couple whose baby has a tracheotomy has been assured of $350 monthly for in-home care until a state program kicks in.

The foundation was started, by accident almost, when Paul K. Donahue of North Tonawanda and his wife, Clare, and some friends threw a party to raise money for medical bills incurred by their Niagara University classmate Chantal Avin Rosen during experimental cancer treatment. She died in 1997 at age 33 of the cancer that she'd been battling since childhood.

"For a time, she was paying for treatments on her American Express card," said Clare Donahue.

Not only did they pay off $20,000 in Chantal's bills, they also donated $25,000 to NU for a scholarship in her name. The experience opened their eyes to the fact that there are many "Chantals" and they decided to turn the one-time party into a foundation.

"We have a social worker friend at Children's Hospital who said she could send us 10 cases a day," said Donahue, whose board of directors includes Monsignor J. Patrick Keleher, director of campus ministry for the University at Buffalo, and accountant Michael J. Stanek.

"I have my priest and my accountant, and I need them both," said Donahue.

One of the bold claims that Donahue makes is that the foundation has given away 100 percent of the money that it raises at an annual party, with board members paying any expenses.

That piqued my curiosity, since even the most tightly run groups seldom come near that percentage. So I asked Sister Rose Mary Cauley of the Providence Community, who is familiar with the work of the foundation, to verify the claim.

She gave it her much-to-be-trusted blessing.

A natural salesman, Donahue has squeezed his Rolodex cards dry, leaned on businesses for donations and gotten the word out to everyone he meets that there are people in need.

In his mid-30s and the youngest of seven children, Donahue has been a fireball since his childhood in Hamburg.

"I started a lawn care business and hired two of my older brothers to work for me," he said. Now, his wife said, this cause has become his "job and a half."

For this year's bash, he and other board members rounded up prizes and auction items that include a carpet donated by Charles Markarian and Sons Oriental Rugs, a package from the Village Spa, and at least 80 theme baskets with such things as ingredients for making Margaritas, gift wrapping and kitchen supplies.

"Our commitment is that one at a time we help each other," he said.

This year, some of the proceeds will go to Caitlyn Panczykowski, a 4-year-old Lackawanna girl who has cerebral palsy. Caitlyn can walk, unsteadily, with a quad cane, but she and her mother, Catherine Panczykowski, want more.

"It means the world to me to have my daughter run with the other kids, swim, climb trees, dance," said Panczykowski, who breaks down as she talks about the goals she has for her lively, lovely daughter.

Her quest will take them to Florida so that Caitlyn can receive hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Most commonly it's used to treat "the bends" that divers experience and, more recently, it's been tried for other conditions, including stroke, multiple sclerosis and burn victims. (The Panczykowskis are also being assisted by Caring for Cait, a fund-raising effort coordinated by the Lackawanna Junior Chamber of Commerce.)

While some parents of children with cerebral palsy report encouraging results, the oxygen treatment has not been reviewed scientifically, according to an October statement from the United Cerebral Palsy Research & Educational Foundation. UCP urges parents to be cautious in seeking unproven treatment, where questions exist about whether results may be temporary, marginal or non-existent.

Donahue's response is that if research proved that the treatment didn't work "it would be foolish to go that route, but if it's just a lack of research, we can go with that."

"Yes, hands down, we can support a mother's dream," he said. "In fact, Chantal's bills were for experimental therapy."

Though his donors are mainly middle-class, Donahue has found that most respond to a request that can transform a life, lift a burden, give some hope.

Last year, he said, about 150 people attended the foundation's fund-raiser. He hopes they all return, but he wants more. "What I'd love is to stand at the door and see a roomful of people I don't know," he said.

That's how he'd know that the word is out about the work his foundation is doing.

This year's benefit will be held at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at St. Joseph University Church, 3269 Main St. The $15 admission includes a Chinese auction, door prizes, beverages, snacks and music.

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