Nickie Fazio has no problem remembering when she joined the board of Genesee Cancer Assistance; it was in March 2017.
The year was to become an important one for Fazio, who had already lost her mother to ovarian cancer.
“I found out I had breast cancer the following month," she said Saturday evening during GCA’s 25th anniversary celebration. “This is something we had a need for in this area."
As a volunteer, former patient, board member and now current board president, Fazio encompasses nearly every facet of the organization that's integral to its success. Organization members celebrated those aspects throughout the evening at Batavia Downs Gaming with running slideshows; words of remembrance, recognition and hope; and relishing the nonprofit’s success to date.
GCA’s humble beginnings were in 1995, founded as Genesee Cancer Care by Dorothy Schlaggel and Russ Romano. Both Schlaggel and Romano were unavailable to be at the event and shared some thoughts through letters sent to the board. Romano, a Batavia-based realtor, recalled a day in February 1995 when his friend Dorothy stopped in to see him. A cancer survivor herself, Schlaggel talked about her vision to establish a grassroots cancer organization after American Cancer Society closed its local doors here.
At one point, Romano asked her “Why are you telling me this?” She explained that he knows a lot of people, and is organized, so she thought he’d be the perfect partner for this endeavor. He agreed, and they never looked back.
Festival of Hope was the kick-off fundraiser, and it not only raised money but also awareness about the agency and what it was doing. Over the years that idea has been transformed into what the GCA has become today, he said.
Schlaggel wrote that two key events — Festival of Hope and GCA’s golf tournament — made that transformation possible. A gradual flow of contributions from other charitable organizations and "tremendous community support" allowed the effort to flourish, she said.
“I would like to say to all who give their time, effort and support to this worthy organization, thank you and God bless,” she said.
Both Batavia residents had a shared desire to create an organization so that cancer patients living in Genesee County would have access to financial aid and a variety of support services. That first year brought in eight patients and gave them $945 for their out-of-pocket expenses. 11 years later there were 140 patients per year and financial assistance of more than $52,000. Now GCA serves nearly as many — 100 to 120 people — per month, and provides $600 a person and free admission to the Simply Beautiful program.
More than two and a half decades have brought with them golf tournaments, spaghetti dinners, basket raffles, picnics, grants and other special projects. All totaled, those efforts have meant more than $1 million raised and dispersed to 2,000 patients. Financial assistance is provided to cancer patients to offset medical costs, trips to related medical facilities, prescriptions and Simply Beautiful, a program to assist cancer patients with the negative effects of cancer treatment on one’s hair and skin.
Enter Joseph “Joe” Gerace, a city hair stylist who not only founded Simply Beautiful, but also became the face and heart of the program. He instructed cancer patients how to apply makeup and use and care for wigs as they dealt with cancer treatment’s physical effects. He also, apparently nudged people into getting involved before they knew what was happening.
“He’s special to a lot of people,” Master of Ceremonies Paul Figlow said. “Joe has a funny way of asking people … Joe doesn’t say would you mind being on the board of GCA? No. He said, Paul you’re on the board. He’s in our thoughts always.”
Gerace’s daughter, Karen Rowland, embraced her dad’s giving spirit as she shared how he would feel.
“He would be so proud of all of you, he would be so ecstatic,” she said to the crowd of 215 people. “Growing up I was raised knowing and hearing about Genesee Cancer Assistance. His involvement was in so many things, but especially Genesee Cancer Assistance and the Simply Beautiful program, which he created.”
Just for the occasion, she listed his attributes as they fit into the spelling of his name: J is for juggler, and “a heart so involved in so many organizations;” O is for having an open-door policy and being ready to talk and plan out the next new event; S for selfless, which was so evident by his presence at so many events; E for encourager; P for passionate; and H for helping others. And G as in Gerace, she said, "For get ‘er done." Her father "touched the lives of everyone he came in contact with," she said.
Event participants agreed. From Figlow and Fazio to volunteer Diane Martino, they all had Gerace to thank for bringing them on board with GCA.
“He’s one of the most wonderful, caring men I’ve ever met,” Fazio said. “He was so passionate about everything he did, and about the Simply Beautiful program. I know Joe would be so incredibly proud.”
She began to volunteer in 2015 before joining the board in 2017 and becoming president two years ago. Fazio was recruited to help Gerace, and readily admits that “wig care is not the same as hair care,” which makes the lessons so valuable to patients. When Gerace died in 2016, Fazio became even more involved with the program, she said.
"He motivated me to come and volunteer and help out," she said.
Martino and her husband were friends with Gerace, and learned about the work he did at GCA.
“I just came and did stuff,” she said. “It’s to help give back to the community.”
There’s a joke about her being a “poster child” for the agency, she said. It’s a literal term, since she has been seen so many times taping up event posters throughout town. Martino even brings along her own tape. She wants no specific recognition of herself, but of the group as a whole, she said.
Proclamations from Genesee County, New York State Assembly and Senate offices, and the City of Batavia took care of that. Each one recognized the efforts of GCA and its importance to the community. Genesee County Legislator Shelley Stein, who has battled cancer, added her own words to the proclamation's text.
“Those of us in this room will always remember the day of our diagnosis,” she said. “I’ve come to learn that hope lives in Genesee Cancer Assistance, and hope works through the people in this room. And our community is blessed.”
Attendees at the 25th Genesee Cancer Assistance celebration Saturday enjoy dinner, take photos and listen to speakers Saturday at Batavia Down Gaming, including Genesee County Legislator Shelley Stein, in top photo presenting a proclamation to GCA Board President Nickie Fazio, GCA Executive Director Sue Underwood, Sue Underwood with volunteer Diane Martino, Karen Rowland, longtime GCA board member Dr. Roger Mudd and Master of Ceremonies Paul Figlow. Photos by Howard Owens