Malena Mercurio, Celebrity Child of this year's Variety Kids Telethon, was just 3 when she was diagnosed with cancer. Overnight she went from an energized toddler playing outside in East Aurora to a patient, undergoing a marathon of exhausting treatments in Women and Children's Hospital.
"We couldn't believe it. It was so surreal," said Suzanne Mercurio, Malena's mother. "It was like we were living a nightmare."
The Mercurio family is grateful to Women and Children's Hospital, with financial support from Variety, for making the difficult transition as easy as possible.
"They just made you feel so safe and comfortable," Mercurio said. "They provide the best care around, and they go above and beyond."
Malena celebrated the completion of her 2 1/2 years of chemotherapy treatments last November. And now the cancer-free, 5-year-old is basking in the limelight as the Celebrity Child of the 47th annual telethon.
"I like talking on the microphone," Malena said of the numerous public appearances she has to make in her new role. "Variety is good because they help Children's Hospital, and they're good because they take care of me."
The theme of this year's telethon is "Share Your Care." It will air from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. next Sunday on Channel 7 from the grand ballroom of the Adam's Mark Hotel. It is the longest-running, locally produced telethon in the world.
There are other events planned as well. "A Tribute to the Kids . . . A Special Concert by the Telethon National Cast" is Saturday in the Riviera Theatre, North Tonawanda. Doors open at 6 p.m., the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ begins playing at 6:30 p.m. The national cast performs at 7 p.m.
Tickets are $20 and available at Budwey's Supermarkets, the Variety Kids Telethon office and at the Riviera. Call 854-7577.
Variety volunteers will be in the Galleria Mall on Saturday raising money. A live remote takes place noon to 2 p.m. next Sunday in the mall's lower level near Macy's.
"Western New York has always been such a giving community, they've always rallied around us," said Stephen J. Podosek, executive producer of the telethon. "This year, we know times are tough, but together, if we share a little bit more, we can help our kids achieve what they can for themselves."
This year's honorary chairman is Terry Buchwald, a Buffalo Elvis impersonator who has performed on the telethon for more than 15 years and is a member of the Variety Kids Telethon national cast. Laura Little, a longtime volunteer with Variety and a member of the charity's board of directors and president of the Variety Club Women, is this year's general chairwoman.
"We are hoping Western New York will share their care," said Little, who has worked for National Fuel for more than 30 years. "Times are hard for everyone, but we hope people will do whatever they can to help."
Telethon proceeds will benefit the inpatient Variety Club pediatric pharmacy at the hospital and its Robert Warner Rehabilitation Center and other children's charities in the area.
Last year, the Variety Club of Buffalo raised $1.3 million during its 46th annual telethon.
Celebrity guest this year include Las Vegas performer Clinton Holmes, who grew up in Farnham; Brandon Barash from "General Hospital"; actress and singer Ilene Graff from the 1980s sitcom "Mr. Belvedere"; Mr. Food; Direct from Vegas The Rat Pack; and Las Vegas entertainer Kelly Clinton.
Suzanne Mercurio said her family is honored to promote the telethon.
"Before Malena was diagnosed, I didn't know the extent of the help that Variety provides to so many kids in Western New York," she said. "There are so many charities that they help. We are proud to be a part of something so wonderful."
Malena, who attends Parkdale Elementary School, was diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia, a type of blood cancer, after mysterious dime-size bruises began appearing on her back and would not heal. After eight days of chemotherapy, she was in remission but had to complete the entire 2 1/2 years of treatment to better the chances of the cancer not returning. And it included receiving chemotherapy orally, in her Mediport and her spine. At one point, Malena took steroids and also took 30 pills in a week. Along the way, she contracted spinal meningitis, which had to be combated with a separate round of treatments.
"It was another blow we didn't expect," Malena's mother said. "She was on treatments around the clock; it was exhausting. And she began losing her hair. By Christmas, she was totally bald."
The Mercurio family celebrated Malena's last day of treatment with a party with 400 people, which included staff members from Women and Children's Hospital. She will continue to be checked once a month at the hospital for the next five years. Her mom has noticed a change in her personality and behavior since she's been off medication.
"She was great throughout her treatment, but now we're seeing a more exuberant child come out," she said. "She's really a lot of fun. We are really enjoying her."
Cover photo of the Mercurio family is by Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News. Clockwise from left, are Anthony, 7; Mackenna, 9; father Peter; Jamison, 10; mother Suzanne and Malena, 5.