AUDUBON — Faith Marandola and her family are optimistic that the worst is over, but her son John's diagnosis at age 3 "almost destroyed us."
It was brain cancer, metastatic and likely terminal. "It almost destroyed us," she repeated, "and almost took our son's life."
Today, though, John Marandola is a 10-year-old who, his mom laughs, "likes to drop truth bombs" and makes his way around with the help of a leg brace but is still driven to do all he can physically do. His prognosis changed from the grimmest possible to one that's given his family hope he can have a long, happy life.
Last summer was perhaps the best of John's young life: a summer in which he and his family had season passes to Dorney Park and gift cards to Top Golf in Mount Laurel. He even got to go to Gillette Stadium in Massachusetts to see his hero, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
"It changed the landscape of our lives," said Marandola, thankful for a community-led effort to help her family.
That effort came from a June 16 post on Audubon Uncensored, a community Facebook page, written by Steve Radie, one of the page's administrators.
Radie recalled meeting John at a softball game, where the boy was selling softball accessories. When Radie asked why, John dropped one of those truth bombs, as kids often do.
"He said I’m selling them for my cancer treatment," Radie wrote in the post.
"My heart instantly broke. After the game I seen the kid in the parking lot pulling around the baseball bag as big as him. I asked him if he wanted help with that bag he said, 'No I pull it all the time.' He was full of smiles and very upbeat ... Let’s show this kid some love and let’s like this page. I would also like to do something special for this little boy but I’m not sure what yet."
A few days later, Radie, an Audubon resident and father of three, posted again:
"I have asked John’s mom what would make him smile. The list was small and very simple."
John goes to Dorney Park each summer with his family and tries one new ride each visit, Faith explained, because his sensory perception was affected by the cancer. He loves chess, she added, and wants to challenge himself physically with golf. And Tom Brady, the health-obsessed New England QB, is John's hero because the two share a passion for clean, healthy eating.
"It’s important to know John or his family didn’t ask for any of this," Radie wrote.
That didn't stop Radie, and thus began an above-and-beyond response from Audubon residents and others to help the boy and his family.
Radie, a self-described "blue collar guy" who hauls heavy equipment for a living, has lived with his wife and their three children in the borough for three years. Since then he's crowdsourced help for neighbors in need. In January, he started a new Facebook group, Audubon Peer to Peer Aid, for the sole purpose of matching those who need help with anyone willing and able to offer it.
People message Radie privately, so no one feels judged or ashamed, he said. He keeps their identity to himself unless told otherwise; then he posts their requests on the page and, with the help of Kelli Aceto, another borough resident, works to get their requests filled. Donors are, for the most part, also anonymous.
A older couple, both with respiratory issues, worried about going out and possibly being exposed to coronavirus and asked for bottled water. A family requested clothing for their teenage children; another woman, recently homeless, asked for furniture and housewares for a new apartment; now back on her feet, she hopes to reunite with her children, Radie said.
He even helped the Audubon Police Department purchase a a chip reader so lost pets could be returned to their owners more quickly.
With the leftover money, Chief Thomas Tassi said, "he got us all gift certificates to Antonino's," a beloved pizzeria on Merchant Street. "He raised more money than we needed, so we used the gift certificates to feed the kids at Audubon Day."
The Facebook page means "there's no judgment, no paperwork, just help," said Radie, who admits that it leaves him and his neighbors open to those who might take advantage of their generosity. So far, though, that hasn't happened and he doesn't think it will.
"I think people are very willing to help," he said. "In fact, a lot of people write to me that they wish they could do more, which is pretty awesome when you think about it."
He doesn't collect unsolicited donations and tries to stay away from being a food bank, he said. "We try to do it almost like a blitz: You ask and you get it as soon as we can get it to you."
For Faith Marandola, the generosity of people from Audubon and other surrounding towns has made life easier.
"When people come together it helps lift some stress off our lives," said the Willingboro resident. "Recognizing we all need each other, Steve enabled that to happen in a very simple way, to love on the people around him in our community."
Generosity comes in many forms, she said, but this was a novel one.
"People usually give to a nonprofit or a church, and we never see other end of that; it's just 'We gave money to charity.' I think (Radie) sparks generosity in a whole different way.
"I think this fight would have destroyed us but for the grace of God and our community."