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Baking Memories 4 Kids Brings HOPE

Alex Rodriguez lends a helping hand. (Christian Goewey : WFUV Sports)

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Sometimes I wonder how remarkable it would be just to walk in a room and make someone you don’t even know smile from ear-to-ear because of your mere presence. Maybe it’s happened without me even knowing it but what I do know is that athletes have that fortunate ability because I’ve seen it numerous times. I last saw it on the final day of HOPE Week, Friday, August 21st, when the Yankees honored Baking Memories 4 Kids founder Frank Squeo.

Frank Squeo, a survivor of Stage III testicular cancer, was told at age 47 that his days were dwindling down as the cancer was approaching both his brain and spleen. He had to take time off from his pool business to fight the illness. After months of surgeries and chemotherapy, Frank eventually recovered and survived cancer. However, that wasn’t the end. Frank had seen children and their families enduring days like he had and he knew at a singular moment that he was going to help them.  He said, “As soon as I got better, I knew that the time was gonna come where everything would be crystal clear of why I went through what I went through because in life I’ve always believed everything happens for a reason since I was a little kid.”  Frank remembers the exact point of the road where he was driving when everything clicked.  He decided at that moment that he was going to start a charitable organization, which is now known as Baking Memories 4 Kids. The organization would send children with life-threatening illnesses on all-expense paid vacations using the proceeds from sales of chocolate chip cookies he had baked since he was 6 years old.

In 2012, just five years after being diagnosed with cancer, Frank founded the non-profit organization Baking Memories 4 Kids with the help of his first cousin, Christina Metz, who is now the Senior Vice President. A resident of Rockland County, New York, Frank was able to receive help from Kendell Brenner, the culinary instructor at Rockland BOCES.  Brenner allowed Frank to use the kitchen facility where hundreds of volunteers from town come to help during the holiday season. Using the sales from their cookies and partnering with the Orlando, Florida resort, Give Kids the World Village, the organization sends kids from ages 3 to 18 with life-threatening illnesses on weeklong vacations with permission from their doctors. The children and their families receive star treatment at Florida amusement parks at no cost.  Whatever the families need, they receive, ranging from airfare to nurses accompanying them on the trip.  They have never had to deny a family and have no current waiting list.  According to Frank, they have sent 11 families and will be sending another 11 by the end of 2016. The hope is that these kids can be happy and escape the undeserved battles they endure on a daily basis, even if it is just for a fraction of their young lives.

Frank is also a big Yankees fan and on the final day of HOPE Week, he walked into the kitchen at Rockland BOCES, where they’ve made hundreds of thousands of cookies over the past 3 years, but this time it was a bit different. This time, his volunteers would be Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, Adam Warren, Nathan Eovaldi, Greg Bird, and Brendan Ryan.  The sight defined the meaning of heartwarming. Frank walked into the kitchen where his family was waiting with strangers like me and the players draped in aprons and chef hats. Frank, teary-eyed and overjoyed, shook the hands of all the players in complete shock. He joked how he knew them all without knowing them and told them of his organization and its importance.

Frank hugged his loved ones as everyone watched their favorite star athletes bake cookies. The players, themselves, enjoyed it as people gathered around them with cameras and laughed at how surreal this whole day was becoming. Sabathia, from the inner city, credits philanthropic programs for part of his success and said, “Whenever I can do community service or get back in the community and show my face or just do something to help out, I really feel obligated to do it.” Sabathia is pleased that a program like HOPE Week is spreading with other organizations like Minnesota holding their own HOPE Week. Fellow starting pitcher, Nathan Eovaldi also acknowledged taking advantage of the opportunity to give back, saying, “As a player I think sometimes you don’t realize how much you mean to the fans and just being able to give back to them, it’s a lot of fun.”

Later that night, Noah Diaz, a four-year-old boy, and his family would be surprised on the field of Yankee Stadium with the news that Baking Memories 4 Kids would be sending them to the Sunshine State. Noah has had five open-heart surgeries with the first coming at just 2 days old. He suffers from a rare heart defect and Kabuki syndrome. Before, Frank had said, “To say that that’s gonna be powerful to me, is gonna be the understatement of a lifetime.” The Diaz family was presented with the news prior to the game, and afterwards, their reactions were as expected. Noah’s mother, Lissette, said it was “a perfect blessing, just the perfect day.” In fact, she knew about the surprise and was able to keep it a secret from her family. In regards to being a part of this week, Noah’s father, Joseph, said, “We’re so very honored and blessed we were selected to be a part of HOPE Week and we hope that other families can experience what we’ve experienced, other families that have dealt with a situation like ours.”

If you were at this event, you wouldn’t be surprised at the person Frank is, because his family is no different. From his cousin, Christina, to his parents and many others, Frank’s benevolent nature is not unfounded. His family is not surprised at what Frank has achieved because they have never put anything past him. His parents told me multiple stories of his childhood and how this desire to help others was within him since he was a young boy.  Frank genuinely does not want the spotlight; he does this solely for “his little angels.” When I asked Frank if he has ever realized the impact he’s made, he responded that when he saw hundreds of people show up on the last day of baking, he just stood there and cried. He said, “I do take it in because I learned that life can change on a dime and can change for anybody on a dime, so you have to enjoy every moment that you have.” Frank summed it up pretty well, “you close your eyes and dream of what your best thing could possibly be in life and then dream again and that’s what this is like for me.”