Saturday morning began with a surprise for 3-year-old Gabriella LaPointe, who found herself whisked away in a limousine with her parents and older sister for an early trip to Dave & Buster’s in the White Flint Mall.
Then, when the limo pulled back up to her home in the 8500 block of Churchill Downs Road in Gaithersburg, her bewilderment quickly turned to pure joy as she was greeted with cheers and applause by more than 60 family members and volunteers who had — while she was away — put the finishing touches on a brand new play set in her backyard.
Gabby, a pediatric cancer patient at the National Children’s Hospital, needed only the slightest encouragement from her sister, 8-year-old Stephanie LaPointe, to run headlong toward the swings.
“Oh, look, Gabby!” Stephanie shouted with glee as the two spotted the smiling spectators and the brand new wooden play set. “Swings!”
Nearby, Eric Newman, founder of the Virginia Beach-based Roc Solid Foundation, stood with a smile on his face, perhaps remembering his own experience as a young cancer survivor. It was that experience that motivated him to set up the nonprofit offshoot from his construction company to build 35 such play sets for young cancer and leukemia patients.
Newman was Gabby’s age when doctors told his parents he likely would not survive his battle with pediatric liver cancer.
“The one thing you don’t have to teach a child to do is play,” he said. “When they come around the corner and see what we’ve got for them, they’re not thinking about the needles or their treatments or anything; they see that play set and they’re suddenly just kids again, doing what kids are supposed to do.”
Although Gabby’s project was the first one Roc Solid has completed in Maryland, the nonprofit hopes to expand to reach young patients across the nation, he said. Each project costs about $3,500, including the limousine rental and the diversionary trip away from the child’s house, and donations are raised by local companies in the child’s area, Newman said.
Having heard of Newman’s nonprofit from a company in Virginia, D.C.-based real estate company Keller Williams Capital Properties agents and employees, many from the company’s new Rockville branch, pooled their resources and raised $10,850 with auctions and a charity dinner for clients to build Gabby’s and another patient’s projects. The effort was part of the company’s annual Renew, Energize and Donate volunteer service day, said Rockville branch Managing Director Amanda Light, who was among the volunteers present Saturday.
“This has been great for our company for team building alone, and it’s so rewarding to see [Gabby] enjoying herself,” Light said. “Our company’s already committed to [Roc Solid] that, next May, we’re going to fund four more of these projects in the area.”
Meanwhile, Gabby — smiling shyly at all the strange, happy faces around her — squealed in delight as her father, Stephen LaPointe, pushed her gently on the swing. Gabby then made her mother, Marizol LaPointe, go down the slide with her and explore the miniature playhouse that tied the structure together. Jumping down to take a turn on the swing-mounted surfboard, Gabby’s sweet, innocent laughter filled the warm, summer afternoon.
“I’m the queen of the waves, Daddy!” she cried out to her father as he stood watching her nearby.
“She’s been watching the Barbie mermaid movie with a surfer in it,” Stephen said. “This is what parents want … you don’t want your kids to hurt for anything so you try your best to normalize things for them, and this will be a huge piece of that for us.”