By Jordan Houston
Chrisie Funari’s passion for helping families affected by childhood cancer is personal.
Her daughter Ava was only 18 months old when she was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma, an aggressive form of pediatric cancer.
Ava spent the next roughly four years undergoing harsh treatments that caused her teeth to disintegrate, her hair to fall out and her kidneys to fail.
Two days after telling her mother she didn’t want to “feel like this anymore,” Ava died. She was 5 years old.
Funari vowed from that moment to channel her grief, as well as her frustrations, into supporting other families in similar situations. She founded the Arizona Cancer Foundation for Children, which aids 300 families per year with free financial, social and emotional assistance.
“I knew I always wanted to do something the entire time she was sick. Nobody asked me how I was doing or how my son was doing, so when I started the foundation, our main purpose was to focus on the entire family,” Funari says.
The Scottsdale nonprofit, located at 14550 N. Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard, Suite 100, offers financial assistance, including medical, rent and other expenses associated with their child’s cancer diagnosis. It also provides coping skills workshops and individual and family counseling services.
“This is how I choose to deal with my grief. I have all of this sadness and frustration inside of me,” Funari says. “They say, ‘When you can’t help yourself, help somebody else.’”
The foundation’s support is divided into “three pillars,” Funari says.
The financial pillar covers medical bills, mortgages and end-of-life services, while the second pillar falls into the social category, encompassing family events, art classes and more. The third pillar is canine therapy and counseling.
All the foundation’s families are referred by a social worker from one of the several Arizona hospitals dedicated to pediatric cancer, Funari explains.
“It is so rewarding to be able to give back to these families. It’s something I wish I would have had during my journey with my daughter,” Funari says. “It’s so rewarding just to know that you’re giving somebody — a mom or a dad or a child — peace of mind.”
K9 Therapy has been a major success with the foundation’s families, she adds.
Although the nonprofit works with a handful of trained therapy dogs, it’s a 5-year-old chocolate Lab named Leo who has stolen the hearts of many.
“He’s just so wonderful with the kids. If someone is in a wheelchair, he knows to walk or sit with them,” Funari says. “He’s a trained therapy dog and he only works here and with children with cancer, but he lights up the whole family and everybody just loves being around him.”
Another service setting the nonprofit apart, according to Funari, is its end-of-life support resources.
The Arizona Cancer Foundation for Children provides financial assistance for funeral services and end-of-life expenses. It also ensures families have continued support after their child dies.
“When we help families and work with them, we don’t just help them once — we help them multiple times,” Funari says. “When a family has a child that passes away, that is so traumatic. It is the worst thing ever, and I couldn’t imagine helping these families and then say, ‘OK, we helped for two years and now we’re done,’” she says. “No, we’re not done — we’re never done.
“We’ve had kids that help that are survivors that have come back to volunteer.”
ACFC families can also participate in the nonprofit’s programs, such as the cancer warriors events and counseling services, for up to a year after the fact.
The Arizona Cancer Foundation for Children has helped over 900 families affected by pediatric cancer since its inception in 2014. While its impact has been monumental, its origins stem from humble beginnings.
Funari operated the grassroots organization out of her home for nearly two years before transitioning into the Airpark around 2016, she recalls.
“I like to say we are ‘homemade,’’’ Funari says. Currently, ACFC has room to host only one family at a time in its facility. Funari says she plans to move into a 15,000-square-foot facility, called Ava’s Treehouse, by next year.
Her vision is to “raise the bar” in pediatric support and offer children diagnosed with pediatric cancer a place to “experience a safe and advantageous childhood.”
“At the end of the day, there is nothing we won’t do for the families. I’ve been there, and I know what it feels like to feel like you’re isolated, alone and don’t know where to turn,” Funari says. “We want to do whatever we can do to help them, and if for some reason we can’t, we’ll find somebody that can.”
The new location will feature a state-of-the-art facility catering specifically to the special needs of children with cancer and their families.