By Cheryl Conway
Having to watch two good friends battle cancer while trying to take care of their children and run a household was difficult, but yet inspiring to one East Hanover mom.
Last year, Daniela Riverso decided to take some action to help other struggling mothers who want the best for their families but just need a little more help. She founded the Michele Fuela Foundation in 2016 in honor of the late Michele Fuela, her close friend and personal trainer who succumbed to cancer in 2014 after fighting the disease for seven years.
While many non-profit organizations exist with the sole purpose of raising funds for cancer research, Riverso’s organization raises funds that directly go to the victim to help them along the way.
“I hope to be the Susan G. Komen Foundation giving to women and not research,” says Riverso. “There’s billion and billions of dollars raised for research; we still don’t have one cure for cancer. There’s so much in research. How do we not have a cure for cancer?
“I want to see someone who’s going to actually benefit from when they are sick; all I’m seeing is people who are dying.”
She just lost her 47-year old cousin to pancreatic cancer this past Dec. 2016; and two girlfriends since 2014.
Riverso’s immediate goal through her foundation is to “to benefit young moms with cancer who undergo treatment but still have to be moms.” She would eventually like to grow the foundation to help mothers both near and far.
“I have no intentions of stopping locally,” she says. “There are so many moms out there.”
The Michele Fuela Foundation “is to assist these families and work with companies that will make their day to day life a little more manageable during this time,” as stated as its mission.
“We will be providing services to our recipients that will include food shopping delivered to their homes, a cleaning service and a laundry service. Through your donations and support we hope to help as many moms as we can”
Registered as a non-profit organization, Riverso is seeking 501(3)C status.
Her first fundraiser, a Spring Gala, is planned for Thur., May 18, 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. at the Hanover Manor in East Hanover. Tickets are $75 and will include food, beer, wine, disc jockey, a silent auction featuring sports memorabilia and gift certificates, as well as some other fun surprises
Proceeds from this fundraiser will help at least one local recipient already identified, says Riverso.
Riverso has reached out to some local businesses to provide discounted services to each recipient identified through the foundation. Each recipient is targeted to receive services from ShopRite From Home, Merry Maids and Laundry Angels.
Depending on how much is raised, Riverso hopes to provide a total of $3,000 per recipient, with $1,000 allocated per service.
“I would love it to be $5,000; we are just starting off,” says Riverso, a substitute teacher and single mother of three children. “Support systems are huge; if I got sick the first thing you think about is not for you, it’s your kids, family, your household.”
While future fundraisers are not yet planned, Riverso hopes to organize a walk/run as well as a fall fundraiser.
With every decision she makes with the foundation, Riverso confers with Matt Fuela and 22-year old Gabrielle Fuela, husband and daughter of her “closest friend.” They have taken the loss of their loved one, Michele, and honored her through this foundation.
The way in which she handled her diagnosis, with the strength and courage to keep going while still helping others, has left them with a lasting impression that has only inspired them to do more.
Married since June 1992, Michele and Matt had three children, with the youngest only three years old, when Fuela she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007.
“Chris was only three at the time and I believe was part of the reason Michele fought so hard and kept going,” wrote Matt on the foundation website. She had to, she was their mom.
“I never met someone as strong and determined as my wife. She battled the cancer with all her might and unimaginable courage. A 12 hour operation to start followed by years of chemotherapy and radiation treatments that may have taken her hair and wreaked havoc on her body-but never could affect her beauty or her soul.
Being a wife, mom and personal trainer, Michele never let the disease “in” and her words to me always were ‘we got this.’”
Fuela fought her cancer for seven years.
“The cancer beat her; she was 44 when she passed” on Independence Day, July 4, 2014, says Riverso. “She left the world with a bang.”
Matt explained, “When the cancer penetrated Michele’s spine and took away the use of her legs, she refused to “let down” her clients at the gym. When she gave her classes at this point, Michele used the help of someone to demonstrate the moves; like I said, unbelievable strength and courage.
“Michele’s Foundation in her memory is to assist any woman inflicted by this horrific and all too common disease. Women, who still need to be wives/moms and do all the things that come with those titles, are who we want to help.”
Riverso was just one of the members at Affinity Fitness in Whippany, now called Powerhouse Fitness, who Fuela trained.
“In the four short years of my life, she impacted my life,” says Riverso. “If you ever saw her you would never know she had cancer. She was always at the gym. When she had a tumor on her spine, she came with a cane and still tortured us.”
While she did not show her struggles, Riverso knew that taking care of the household was still tough for her friend. Fuela’s parents lived in New York so were not always available to help with the kids.
“She learned to do things with cancer but when it came back with a vengeance, that was tough for her,” Riverso says. “Trying to do things around the house was so hard.”
Starting the foundation in her honor, Riverso says, “I wouldn’t think of doing anything else. “She was a great person not just because she was just my friend, but really special.”
Riverso had another good friend, Donna of East Hanover, a young mom to two twins who fought ovarian cancer for 13 years. Donna and Fuela, “they knew so much about each other, but never met,” says Riverso. “They lived a town away,” and they always asked her how the other was doing.
While Fuela was on chemo, “throwing up,” Donna’s cancer spread to her brain causing her to become partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. Fuela asked Riverso, “would she let me come to her house and help her with her mobility so she’s not just sitting around? So I called Donna, and she said ‘sure.’”
They had three sessions, “then Michele’s cancer came back on her spine.” Fuela died two years before Donna, who passed last spring 2016.
“Throughout her own battle, Michele was willing to help others; she wanted to help others,” says Riverso.
To learn more about the Michele Feula Foundation or to request a local recipient, go to www.themichelefeulafoundation.org.