Tragedy changes lives and grief persists. But when Jean and John Gianacaci of Hopewell lost their 22-year-old daughter Christine to the Haitian earthquake of January, 2010, Jean knew that she had a choice of how to deal with her grief.
“I think when you suffer this loss, there are two roads you can go down,” she says. “Either the road of channeling your energy to help somebody and do something, or you can just do nothing.” The Gianacacis decided to build the Christine’s Hope for Kids foundation to carry on their daughter’s commitment to helping children in need. “We chose this road, and it has helped us with our grief,” says Jean. “We’re busy constantly, and we’re building her legacy.”
Christine, who grew up in Hopewell and graduated from the Lewis School, was dyslexic and and had ADD and Tourette’s syndrome. But even when she was the butt of teasing from other children, she never let things get her down. “She always looked at life with a smile and took everything in stride,” Jean says. “And she always looked to do for others and be kinder to others. Even kids who weren’t so kind to her, she was always kind to them.”
Christine had always been an active volunteer, through Girl Scouts, Christmas toy collections and cookie baking for shut-ins, and junior golf programs. But she did not fully find her true passion for helping poor children until she got to Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. There she joined a group called Students for the Poor and went to Jamaica with an international group called Food for the Poor during “J-term,” a short winter term when students are encouraged to explore something outside the box.
In Jamaica Christine visited orphanages and schools, where she fed and played with children, and she just loved it. “She came home and was — not a different person, because she was always kind and generous to a fault — but she saw a whole different side of poverty,” says Jean. “She had seen poverty but never at that level.”
In Jamaica Christine had seen children panhandling and starving in the streets, some with no clothes. In the orphanages, she saw cribs lined up one after another. “That kind of poverty most kids don’t see unless they go on a trip like that,” says Jean. “I think the thing that captured her was that even though they were poor, their spirit was still there.”
The next year, when Christine wanted to go to Haiti during J-term, her parents tried to talk her out of it, urging her to explore different possibilities and potential paths for her future, but she was adamant about going and told her parents, “You just don’t know the kind of feeling you get when you help those less fortunate.” So she went, and a day and a half after her arrival died in the earthquake.
The Gianacacis decided to set up a foundation that would build on what Christine had started — the giving of herself to needy children. This is the process they went through:
#b#Decide on the goal#/b#. There was no question that the goal was to help poor children, but the family had to focus geographically on where to do their work. “We decided that Christine probably would have done it with kids here — there is such a need right here in our local communities,” says Jean.
She also wanted to make sure every dollar went where it was meant to go, having seen so much money squandered in Haiti. But the foundation’s goal is not just helping needy children. “Our biggest mantra is trying to teach kids to help other kids,” says Jean.
In a program called “Pennies from Heaven,” school children collect pennies for Christine’s Hope in large jars for a specified time period. When the time is up, they count the pennies and the foundation matches what the children collected. The children are then offered three or four choices, and they vote on where they want their money to go. Choices might include sending children to summer camp; providing magic for children doing chemo (through Spread the Magic); or supporting the Miracle League of Mercer County, which allows handicapped children to play baseball on a specialized field.
To complete the process, the foundation brings in a representative of the organization so that the children can present the check. Jean observes, “So many times these kids raise money or collect things and ‘poof,’ it’s gone. They never see the result. With us, it’s a start-to-finish process.”
#b#Select a board#/b#. In putting together a board, the Gianacacis selected a broad range of people who could advise them in areas like finance, accounting, education, and business. For example: Jim Beyer, former headmaster of the Hun school, and Kevin Gropp of IBM.
#b#Get help from your community#/b#. John Gianacaci’s partner at Bank Financial Services, Bill Borchert, helped kick start the foundation by matching contributions dollar for dollar the first year. It has also gotten help from banks, businesspeople, and the broader community. Says Jean: “The whole Mercer County community has embraced this foundation.”
As a result, the foundation has grown. It now has a chapter in Florida, where some of Christine’s school friends are involved.It has given away $120,000 in its first 19 months and helped several thousand children.
#b#Select projects to focus on#/b#. The Gianacacis started by calling on existing community groups to ask whether they had children in need. Then the foundation chose specific projects it wanted to support within those organizations — for example, camp scholarships at the local Ys and a leadership program at the Boys and Girls Club of Trenton and Mercer County. “When we give the money, we are very specific about what the money is to be used for,” says Jean. “We don’t want the money we give to be used for maintenance or salaries.”
Jean is also a big supporter of giving children swimming lessons so that they are safe in the water. “A lot of kids don’t have a place to swim and don’t learn to swim,” says Jean. “If they go to rivers and creeks and lakes and fall in, they drown. It’s the underprivileged kids that drown because they never had swim lessons.”
Jean grew up in Hopewell, and her husband John in Princeton. Both of their parents ran their own businesses: Jean’s a luncheonette in Hopewell, and John’s a gas station and dress shop in Princeton. Jean graduated from Chamberlayne Junior College in Boston, and John from the University of Dayton in Ohio. Jean worked for many years at Hamilton Jewelers on Nassau Street. Before her daughter died, she had retired and was doing volunteer work, but now she is back at work full-time with the foundation.
John, the foundation’s executive director, has been a partner with Bank Financial Services Group, a consulting firm that works directly with community banks, based at 731 Alexander Road, where Christine’s Hope also is based.
For Jean, the foundation has opened her eyes to the poverty around us. “There are so many kids here in our communities who need help,” she says, noting that children are going to school without jackets and hungry, even in wealthier communities like Princeton. People do not see it, but it is happening right around the corner. “I had a blind eye to it, until I was entrenched in it,” says Jean.
In response, the foundation is doing little things that might change children’s lives. “Poor or not, a child deserves to go to school, play baseball, learn to swim, have warm a winter coat, and not go hungry, and we’re trying to make a positive difference,” says Jean.
One particular event stands out in her mind: When she was with the Florida chapter of the foundation, giving out baseball cleats, the head of a baseball league apologetically asked whether the foundation could help sponsor the 10 children who could not play ball that year because their parents could not afford the $150 playing fee.
“Down in Florida they play baseball the entire summer; it’s like the hub down there. In this one very poor neighborhood, it’s their whole mecca, for the parents and for everyone. If your kids are not playing ball, your family is out.”
The foundation supported all 10 children. As a result foundation staff were invited to the opening ceremony, where one little boy came up to her and said, “Excuse me. I just want to thank you for what you did for letting me play ball this summer.” Then he wrapped his hands around her waist.
“I was speechless,” she says. “That was all this kid wanted.”
For Gianacaci, her work with the foundation keeps her connected with Christine. “I truly believe my daughter is driving this train,” she says. “We’re coming up with ideas and things and sometimes I look at my husband and say, ‘I don’t know how we are doing this.’” As their second Christmas without Christine approaches, Jean reflects that they have accomplished a lot. “This is not easy to do, but I do think she is driving us.”
For more information on Christine’s Hope for Kids, visit www.christineshope.org