When I first heard the news, I was at work at Barnes and Noble, the bookstore. I was on my break, eating a disgusting sandwich and reading a book I had picked up to read on my break. I read the first few pages, which described a young man carefully picking out the gun he would use to kill himself. I wouldn’t understand the irony of this until much later. When I heard my friend Rena say over the loudspeaker, “Schuyler, you have a call on line one,” I knew something was wrong. She knew I was on my break, so she wouldn’t have given me that call unless someone specifically asked for me. And when I answered that phone and heard my mom’s voice, I knew I was right. She started out asking me how I was doing. But I interrupted her and just told her to tell me what was wrong. I remember she sighed and took a breath, as if trying to gather the strength to tell me. She said, “I’m so sorry, but your Aunt Jen is no longer with us.” I don’t know what she said after that, because I crumpled to the floor, no longer aware of anything going on around me. I remember my co-worker Lynn wrapping her arms around me. I remember my manager Colleen coming into the break room and pulling me into a hug. I remember walking to the front of the store where my friends, Jimmy and Jay, were waiting to take me home. I remember feeling lost.
My Aunt Jen committed suicide on February 23rd, 2014. I sort of still feel like I’m on that staff room floor, unable to get up. People do a lot of things to get over grief. Some of them drink. Some of them, like me, eat. Some of them wallow in their grief until it consumes them. I don’t want to be one of those people. I want to be like Debbie. It takes a special person to start a charity organization. Debbie is that special person. She has what my mom calls a big personality and an even bigger heart. I chose her as my inspiration because I recently suffered a loss and I haven’t quite figured out how to deal with it just yet. I want my Aunt’s death to mean something positive for other people. I also want people to know how special she was, and how much she used to laugh. But there is also this feeling of guilt that won’t go away. That horrible feeling of, “I should have known.”
Debbie Savigliano is the amazing person who started the organization Bianca’s Kids, which was recently named the best non-profit organization in South Jersey in 2014. This organization was started a few years ago by President Debbie Savigliano in honor of her late niece, Bianca. Debbie describes Bianca as the, “…typical 21 year old girl. She was my sister Linda’s middle child. What made her different was that she absolutely adored children. She loved kids from when she was a kid. She was passionate about helping kids.” Bianca was just 21 years old when she was struck by a car and killed while walking home. Rather than succumbing to grief, Debbie decided she would start an organization in honor of her niece. She said, “I wanted to start a charity in Bianca’s memory because I felt I owed my niece. I had not helped her reach her dreams in life. So I would do it in death. I felt “why should Bianca’s dream die just because she did?” Who says one’s dreams must die with them? She wanted to help children and I wanted to make that happen. For Bianca.”
Debbie felt something similar to what I did after my aunt died. She said, “Bianca’s mother was extremely sick and as a result, Bianca’ had to move to NJ from Fl (where I lived) to live with her father. Unfortunately, I assumed that she was young and if I didn’t see her today, this month, this year, I would have the next. As a result, I had not seen Bianca in a long time prior to her death. We had spoken but had not actually seen each other in a long time. That grief and guilt of not seeing her is how Bianca’s Kids was born.” Perhaps starting something in honor of my Aunt could also alleviate the guilt I feel over not being there for her. I picked Debbie as my inspiration because I saw an opportunity to learn about exactly what she did and how I could possibly do it. Honestly, I just wanted to know if it helped with the grief.
My first interaction with Debbie didn’t happen face to face. It happened near Thanksgiving. When I walked into Jamie’s Dance Odyssey in Deptford, New Jersey on November 20th, 2013, I honestly felt a bit nervous along with my elation. I clutched several bags in my right hand, and a few more in my left. They were both kind of heavy and held at awkward angles because of the odd shapes of the objects inside. I glanced at the large hot wheels set and the Iron Man actions figure and hoped that he liked these toys. I was so excited because I was about to donate a bunch of presents I had picked out myself for a 4-year-old boy named Nicholas. Though I would never meet him, I knew I would make him happy. However, I was a bit nervous. What if he didn’t like the presents I got him? What if it wasn’t enough, or maybe it was too much? But as I walked down the hallway and saw the cardboard box designated for donations overflowing with gifts, I was reassured. There is no such thing as too much when you’re bringing gifts to foster kids during Christmas. And though Debbie wasn’t there for this particular experience, she is the one who put me there.
There are many organizations that provide Christmas gifts for needy children, but Bianca’s Kids is one-of-a-kind. Bianca’s kids has accomplished much since its beginning in October, 2010. Since then, the organization has provided over 10,000 foster kids with Christmas presents, basic needs, prom dresses, concert tickets, granted wishes, and much more. Recently, Bianca’s Kids has been granting wishes based on Facebook requests.
One such request involved a mom who worked at 7/11, but wasn’t able to provide her three children with Birthday or Christmas presents. Bianca’s Kids decided to throw them the biggest party they could muster, and it was pretty big. Debbie held the party at Jamie’s Dance Odyssey, my mom’s dance studio, which was how I first came to know about Debbie and just how much her organization does. The party consisted of some pretty awesome things, such as all the older girls at the dance studio dressing up as various Disney princesses to surprise the three girls. I had never seen the studio so lively before. Bianca’s Kids had transformed our largest room into a party hall and everyone, especially those three girls, had an amazing time. The organization also provided an entire family a house, had a special meet and greet with a celebrity from the TV show mob wives, and donated Easter baskets to the Volunteer’s of America Homeless Shelter.
The most memorable wish Debbie granted with Bianca’s Kids so far was to Anthony Pasquale, the father of the late Autumn Pasquale. Debbie said, “Anthony Pasquale wished for the park his beautiful daughter frequented to be named after her. As it is my goal to make these wishes come true, I was terrified of this one. It was so important to Autumn, her family and her community. I feared I couldn’t make it come to fruition. Besides the funds that were needed for this wish, the decision and approvals required would rely upon local politicians and the Borough of Clayton. But there was NO WAY I was taking no for answer. This was too important.” Anthony Pasquale is the father of Autumn Pasquale, a twelve-year-old girl who was murdered last year in South Jersey. Debbie went on to say, “One year to the day of Autumn’s murder on 10/20/2013, I granted Anthony’s wish at a park renaming ceremony. To pull that cover from the most beautiful sign that shined in the sun of that beautiful “Autumn” day which read now read “Autumn Pasquale Memorial Park”… was a moment in time I will never forget. I still get chills thinking about it.”
And it’s not just the kids who can benefit from the organization. When I asked who the most memorable person she met was, she laughed. She said, “I laughed a little with this question and here’s why. I had a crush on Tim Tebow for years. I love that kid! One day I had the pleasure of taking a few our needy kids to meet the Eagles at training camp. Guess who was there??? The entire New England Patriots team and Tim Tebow. HOLY MOSES!! Even my own wishes come true through Bianca’s Kids. I was inspired by him because I could read his genuineness and willingness to please the children from Bianca’s Kids while he interacted with them. While I could tell other athletes were doing it out of obligation and some even avoided coming our direction altogether, Tebow took so much time, made sure each child got exactly what they wanted of him and even allowed this old lady to grope him with hugs and kisses.”
Throughout the four years since Bianca’s Kids was started, it has grown exponentially, affecting more kids than even Debbie thought possible. She said, “Ideally, [I want] to introduce our organization to the nation. To make people realize that this wonderful and incredibly successful organization was started with one text from one working mom to a few other working moms and THIS is the result. Over 10,000 children effected positively. As there are copycat criminals, I am convinced that if our work is no display, we too would inspire copycats. Good deeds breed good deeds. So our goal is to continue this work, scream it from the hilltops and inspire others to do the same.”
When I thought of the last question I wanted to ask Debbie, I was a bit unsure if I wanted to ask it. I mean, I didn’t know her that well. What right did I have to ask her how she felt about something so important to her, something that I would never be able to fathom completely? But, I plucked up my courage, and asked her. And I am so glad I did, because her answer blew me away in its insights and sincerity. I asked Debbie if she thought Bianca would be proud of her, and she said, “I would like to think so. Considering how much she cared for children I cant imagine she wouldn’t be happy at the work we are doing in her memory. I recently just had a billboard donated to us. To drive down a road, nearly 4 years after my beautiful niece, to see her face blown up on a billboard is a blessing.” She went on to say, “When people lose someone they love, they don’t forget them. And they don’t want you to forget them either. It is imperative that we know that our loved ones mattered and that their lives meant something. Bianca’s life now means so much more just the 21 years she spent here. As her aunt, I can’t ask for more than that.”
Though I wouldn’t have thought this two months ago, something good can come from grief. Debbie turned her grief from Bianca’s death into something absolutely wonderful. She has helped so many people and granted so many wishes, all in the name of her niece. I feel like she, more than many people, can understand how I have been feeling the past few months. I don’t want my aunt to disappear into nothingness now that she is gone. Most importantly, I don’t want people to think less of her because she chose to take her own life. I want people to know that she was the best aunt anyone could ever have. She was so kind and beautiful, like Bianca. Perhaps by getting to know Debbie, I could start something in honor of my aunt. Or perhaps, it doesn’t even have to be an organization like this. I could donate my first book to her, especially since she was always encouraging me to keep writing. Then, by getting the word out there, maybe I could prevent just one person from taking their life. I can let them know, from experience, how painful it is for people to deal with the fact that their loved one chose to leave them. If I could just save one person’s life, that would be enough. Then maybe, I could feel less like my aunt died for nothing. Perhaps, it would feel more like she is still here with me if I use her name, her kindness, and her beauty to positively affect those around me.