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Dream a little (one's) dream

The Children's Dream Fund fulfills the wishes of children whose lives could be shortened because of their grave illnesses.

[Times photos: Daniel Wallace]
Nicholas LaBarbara, 4, eats one of his favorite meals, macaroni and cheese, while waiting out the drizzly day for the construction of his new play set given by the Children's Dream Fund of St. Petersburg.

By BETH N. GRAY
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 13, 2003


SPRING HILL -- Four-year-old Nicholas LaBarbara has received an answer to his dream, and it fuels his creative and precocious imagination.

Nicholas pretends that the recently installed Carnival Clubhouse play and swing set in his back yard on Oasis Avenue is a sailing ship or a fort.

"Come on, Dad. Pull up the anchor," he ordered Troy LaBarbara as the brown-haired, blue-eyed tyke struggled to heave a sling swing over the railing of the clubhouse's "flying bridge." He directed his mother, Lina LaBarbara, carrying her 10-month-old daughter, Hannah, to climb six ladder rungs to the top deck.

With the family about to cast off, Nicholas imagined a watery scene and warned his mother: "You might get wet if you step one step down."
Nicholas waits for his father, Troy, to finish a ride on the Carnival Clubhouse play and swing set donated by the Children's Dream Fund.

The Children's Dream Fund of St. Petersburg put reality into Nicholas' dream with the play set, which includes three swings, a slide, a crawl tunnel, flying rings and a covered fort with binoculars and a steering wheel mounted on the nearby superstructure.

The fund makes dreams come true for children ages 3 to 18 whose lives could be shortened because of their illnesses, said Joanne Lanning, executive director of the nonprofit organization.

Lanning encountered the LaBarbara family last fall in the office of Dr. Jerry Barbosa at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, where Nicholas has been undergoing treatment since the age of 15 months for acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

If he could have anything he wanted, Lanning asked Nicholas, what would it be?

Initially shy, the youngster didn't answer. So Lanning mentioned some other dreams that had been filled, including a Disney cruise.

"A water slide," Nicholas blurted, producing gulps from his parents.

Lanning perceived the direction of Nicholas' dream and suggested a play set with a slide and bridge and swings.

"He got excited about that the most," Lina LaBarbara said.

Lanning said the Dream Fund looks for a gift that is appropriate for the child.

"If a 4-year-old asks for a laptop (computer), that would not be age-appropriate. A swing set is very appropriate for a 4-year-old," she said.

Through interviews, Dream Fund staffers also ascertain that the dream is in fact the child's and "not Mom and Dad's dream," Lanning said.

Hospitals and clinics along the west coast of Florida, from Gainesville south to Fort Myers, provide referrals to the Dream Fund, which has an office adjacent to All Children's Hospital that is provided free by the institution.

The organization, established in 1981 with an initial donation from the Sunshine City Jaycees of St. Petersburg, raises money through corporate, civic and individual contributions, and an annual all-star celebrity and sports auction. A runs-batted-in program with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays raised $35,000 last year.

And when the supplier of a dream learns of the cause, the company or organization frequently makes an in-kind donation, Lanning said. In Nicholas' case, Rainbow of Florida discounted the play set from its original price of $4,200 to $2,900.

It was installed on a sand base over two days in late March in the back yard of the LaBarbaras, which had held no children's attractions since the family moved from New Port Richey a year ago. Now, the yard is Nicholas' favorite place.

"What did we do when we got home yesterday (from the hospital)?" Nicholas' mom prompted her son.

"We played outside," he said, grinning.

Nicholas had been hospitalized for a week after suffering a fever, a bad headache and an infection from the removal of a Band-Aid that peeled off some skin, his mother said. He received two units of blood and plasma platelets.

Last summer, after the last chemotherapy session of his first 2 1/2-year protocol, with good results, the family celebrated with dinner at Chuck E. Cheese's and a movie. But when they returned home, a telephone message was waiting: The spinal tap revealed leukemia where it had not been detected before.

Shortly thereafter, Nicholas began his second protocol, which is expected to last another year and a half. If the disease doesn't recur for five years after that, he will be considered cured, his mother said.

"If you can have any leukemia, he's got the best kind," she said, "the most curable type."

Nicholas lost his hair at the onset of the second chemotherapy protocol.

"The minute his hair started falling out, his dad and granddad shaved theirs to make him feel comfortable," Mrs. LaBarbara said. Shortly thereafter, Nicholas cradled his father's head in his lap and said, "I like your hair, Daddy. It looks just like mine."

Nicholas' grandparents, Pete and Aida LaBarbara, care for him while his parents teach at Gulf High School in New Port Richey.

These days, Nicholas is chipmunk-cheeked and healthy in appearance.

"He has a lot of energy," his mother said. "I think it's because he eats well. He doesn't eat candy or (drink) soda, which I think keeps him healthy in other aspects."

For his first dinner home from the most recent hospital stay, Nicholas requested Kraft macaroni and cheese. Then it was out to the play set, where Dad says he will rig a hose this summer on the slide to mimic the water slide Nicholas wanted.

Said LaBarbara: "We just hope people will pray for him."

Children's Dream Fund

Contributions and referrals to the Children's Dream Fund may be sent to: Children's Dream Fund, P.O. Box 1881, St. Petersburg, FL 33731. Phone: (727) 892-6736.

Dreams that have come true may be viewed on the Web site at www.childrensdreamfund.org.

Among the more than 1,000 dreams granted by the oldest wish-granting organization in Florida are several recent ones in Hernando County: Christina Gross, 16, of Spring Hill, a mall shopping spree for the teen afflicted with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Billy Patterson, 5, of Brooksville, a family trip to the Smithsonian Institution's dinosaur exhibit for the youngster who received a heart transplant. Mitchell Trout, 4, Brooksville, a family Disney cruise for the youth battling leukemia.

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