MERCER COUNTY —
Sara Cipriano’s son Ayden is 6, the same age JoAnn Lewis’ son Jacob was when he died from cancer and now the two women have teamed up to brighten the lives of sick children.
Cipriano, Hermitage, grew up a racing fan and thought the Children’s Dream Racers - a mock race car tricked out so kids can play video games, watch movies or listen to music while receiving IV treatment for illnesses in the hospital - seemed like a great idea when she heard about them on television.
“It beats the heck out of sitting in your hospital bed,” Lewis said.
At a meeting for another fundraiser Cipriano overheard Lewis talking about the same cars and trying to raise money for them.
“So a couple nights later, I couldn’t sleep. I thought ‘I guess you’ve got to start somewhere’ ” and the Jacob Lewis Memorial Fund’s Dream Team was born.
Cipriano said with the help of folks in the racing community they started collecting donations at local race tracks.
“Before you know it we had three to four thousand dollars. I hadn’t even talked to JoAnn about it then,” Cipriano said
The women officially teamed up and the project “just snowballed,” Cipriano said.
Racers even took their helmets through the stands and collected money.
“One night we got $2,000 just from that. It was amazing,” Cipriano said.
Within a few months they had enough money to buy a car. So they did.
The fund’s first Dream Racer was delivered Dec. 13 to Akron Children’s Hospital Mahoning Valley on what would have been Jacob Lewis’ 24th birthday.
“My son loved video games and he also loved racing,” said Lewis, who lives in Sharon.
“I know that I wouldn’t be able to get him out of it if he was in it,” she said of the Dream Racer.
Cipriano said it’s nice for the children to have something to take their mind off being sick, even if it’s just for 30 minutes.
Lewis was at Akron Children’s to see the children and staff react to the racer when it was unveiled.
“It was phenomenal,” she said.
Designed by retired NASCAR painter Mark Smith, most of the 26 cars he’s built so far are in hospitals in the South. There are 756 children’s hospitals in the United States and the Dream Team’s goal is to get a car in each one.
The racer is built with the same materials as real race cars and painted to match their grown-up sized counterparts complete with graphics and labels like the real thing. The cars can be rolled into different rooms at the hospital and are fitted with a cup holder, IV stand and oxygen tank holder for the youngsters while they play games or watch movies.
This Jacob Lewis Memorial Fund racer is a replica of a car sponsored by Joy Global and driven by Jeremy Zufall, Westmoreland County.
Lewis said they hope to work with hospitals to develop campaigns to raise funds to buy the racers, which cost $10,000. She has a degree in marketing and public relations and is working on a master’s degree in organizational leadership she feels will help them meet their goal.
Cipriano said they almost have enough money to buy a second racer and they’re looking for a hospital to be a home for it.
Businesses and people in the racing community can also buy cars and outfit them with logos and to give back. People can also honor a loved one through a racer, she said.
The Jacob Lewis Memorial Fund has been raising money and giving it to Mercer County area families with ill children for 17 years. The first donation was made on Dec. 13, 1995, which would’ve been Jacob’s 7th birthday. He died that September.
“There’s nothing better than to see the relief that you give a family who feels like everything’s against them,” Cipriano said.
Jacob’s little sister Jenna, now 19, helps her mother raise money for the cause and has done so since she was very small.
Lewis keeps a scrapbook of photographs and fliers from fundraisers and keeps track of their kids with newspaper clippings of graduations and marriage announcements.
Lewis said they’ve raised “hundreds of thousands of dollars” for families with “no strings attached.” She knows what it’s like to drive back and forth to the hospital, pay for parking, meals and gas.
Those things are the small worries for a parent of a sick child.
“It’s hard to see your child suffering,” Lewis said. “The feeling of helplessness is the hardest.”
Jacob was a “social butterfly” and he loved to help people. He often pulled a little girl named Bianca his mom thinks he had a crush on around the hospital in a red wagon while she was waiting for a liver transplant and he was getting treatment for a brain tumor. And he liked to make coffee for a group of older gentlemen in the hospital, too. They called him “little buddy.”
“I personally don’t remember my brother, but he lives on,” Jenna Lewis said.
For more information or to make a donation, visit the www.jacoblewismemorialfund.org.