FITCHBURG – You would never know by looking at spirited and robust 11-year-old Thiago Molinari that the young man with a big heart was fighting the battle of his life not too long ago.
The Sky View Middle School sixth grader was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common childhood cancer, at just three years old. But, thanks to cutting-edge treatment at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, he celebrated five years cancer-free in June.
His parents, Nestor and Gabriela, surprised him when he woke up the morning of the recent monumental milestone with balloons and decorations, photos of him, a big stuffed monkey and a sign that read “Keep Calm I’m 5 years cancer free.”
“He has to go back once a year for blood work just to make sure he is still cancer-free,” his mother said of the continued treatment plan following the “milestone for our family.”
Coming up on eight years ago, when Thiago was discharged from the hospital just before the first Halloween (Thiago’s favorite holiday) following his diagnosis, the Child Life Program staff had decorated the floor for the occasion. Thiago asked his mom if the kids there would be able to go out for trick-or-treating and when she said no, he asked if they could bring them goodie bags.
“That was the beginning,” Gabriela said of her son’s now ongoing tradition of brightening the lives of children and others fighting cancer at UMass. They asked their friends and family for donations for Halloween and then he decided to do something for Thanksgiving for those on the oncology unit at the hospital.
“Every year he brings 50 traditional Thanksgiving meals to the fifth floor to share with the families because we know how hard it is to be away from home without our loved ones,” his mother proudly said.
In addition, Thiago raises money to purchase Christmas toys for the children in the hospital. He asks for donations through his Team Thiago Facebook page and his old elementary school, Johnny Appleseed, would help him with the project every year.
“Don’t forget about the Easter baskets too,” Gabriela said. “This is every holiday only if we are allowed, because when COVID hit we had to stop for safety.”
As if that was not enough, the young, compassionate soul decided to start a lemonade stand at his home for Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and to raise money for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society back in September 2016 and did the same the next couple of years. At the most recent lemonade stand on Sept. 17 he raised $1,174 between the sale and Venmo donations, while Mayor Stephen DiNatale, city fire and police personnel and many community members stopped by to support the endeavor.
“It was such an awesome thing, he really is a smart guy,” said the DiNatale’s Chief of Staff Natalie Oliver, who knows the family and was also at the lemonade stand. “Thiago is very active in the community and always trying to help those who need it the most.”
The money raised will go towards Team Tiago’s fundraising efforts for the 24th annual UMass Cancer Walk and Run the family will be participating in this weekend, another yearly tradition of the family. Gabriela said they will walk with friends and family, “a small group but with lots of energy to kick cancer’s butt.”
When asked why her son is so passionate about raising awareness, funding for cancer research and, in particular, childhood cancer, she sent a video of Thiago explaining why.
“The reason why I’m trying to bring awareness to childhood cancer is because cancer is a super horrible thing that’s going on right now,” the bespectacled young man said emphatically. “I have so many friends that are still with cancer and they are going through treatment still. It is such a horrible thing to go through. And me as a cancer survivor I have gone through it, and I don’t want anybody else to go through it.
“That’s why I am doing lemonade stands and fundraisers to try and bring more awareness and more funds for childhood cancer because as you know the government only gives four percent of the money to childhood cancer. Four percent!” Thiago continued. “We need more, four percent for the children, we are the future and there can’t be any future without people, people like me. I survived and I want my friends to survive. That’s why I am trying to fund more money. I need your guys’ help to help me with my friends’ battle. Thank you guys so much.”
His parents, who are originally from Uruguay and have been married for ten years and together for “13 amazing years,” each moved to Fitchburg over 20 years ago and have two older children who live on their own. Gabriela said their youngest child took the money he raised from the first lemonade stand and “helped two families that the children were fighting against cancer.” Since then, Thiago has donated the proceeds to the hospital Gabriela called the family’s “second home and the place we bring all the donations.”
“With his lemonade stand he doesn’t make much, but he wants to make a difference,” she shared.
Gabriela said her son, who will turn 12 next month, is now like any typical tween — “super active, he is doing Taekwondo, he loves to play video games, and guess what, being on his phone,” she joked. She also described him as “funny, kind, and full of energy.”
“I am used to so much energy since I have a daycare at home but there are days that I need to rest and he doesn’t stop, but I really prefer it that way,” she quipped.
She recalled that even during the darkest times while battling cancer, Thiago remained positive, a true testament to his strong and determined character.
“The thing that always helped us keep going was he never complain about anything,” Gabriela said. “When he was sick, he was always smiling, and he had awful days, but he was always a happy boy. He is a happy boy, thank goodness.”
She said the thing her son wants the most in his life is for other children not to have to go through the same thing he went through.
“If you ask him what he wishes, he will say to find the cure for cancer,” Gabriela said. “He wants to give back in any way he can, because when he was really sick so many people helped him and he only has good memories from the darkest times of our life. He deserves all the credit. We are only here to support him and spread the word because kids get cancer too. We just want to share all the hard work Thiago is doing to bring awareness to childhood cancer.”