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By Corrie M. Anders
The weather was near perfect for a Sunday-morning walk, sunny but not too warm, as the crowd of Pete Blanco's friends gathered on the green at Noe Courts. Spirits were high despite the serious purpose of the gathering.
The 24th Street park was the staging ground for a fundraiser to help the gravely-ill Blanco, a young father whose sudden diagnosis of stage-four brain cancer had stunned families throughout Noe Valley's close-knit preschool community.
Approximately 100 adults and 50 children--including Blanco, his wife Tia Mallette, and their two girls, Ramona, 5, and toddler Veronica--took part in the "Playground-to-Playground Walk: For Pete's Sake," from Noe Courts to Eureka Valley on Nov. 12. Many of the kids clutched strings tethered to helium-filled balloons, which floated over the parade.
Veronica, who wouldn't turn 2 until Christmas Eve, "grabbed her grandmother's hand and walked the entire distance," marveled Audrey Feely, one of the event organizers. "She had this look of determination. It was really sweet. She got into the spirit of it and decided she was going to walk the walk."
The walk ended at Eureka Valley Recreation Center on Collingwood Street, where the couple thanked everyone for their support. Martha & Bros. Coffee, Noah's Bagels, Bell Market, and Peasant Pies donated refreshments, and BNB Partners, a Duncan Street construction firm, paid for the rental of the rec center.
When the checkbooks were put away, over $10,000 had been raised to pay for a special diet Blanco needs to help in his battle against glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive cancer of the brain.
The Blanco family was more than touched. "We were pretty overwhelmed," said Mallette after the event. Pete Blanco added, "The walk was such an uplifting and positive thing--it was just a great infusion of positive energy to have all our friends come together at once and express their love and support."
Families Met at Preschool
Blanco, 40, a general contractor, is currently undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment. He also is in a clinical trial at U.C. San Francisco and gets close oversight at home from Mallette, a registered nurse at the university hospital.
The Blanco family is part of a group of parents who met at Debra King School and Julia Ready's childcare, two well-known Noe Valley preschool programs.
Many of the parents are on child-raising parallels, and have kids whose ages are similar. They got to know each other during after-school activities and play dates, and by sharing babysitters.
The news that cancer had struck one of their own came as a shock.
"It just throws you a curve ball," said Feely. "One minute your kindergarten choices are the most important things in life, and the next you're faced with something much more serious."
'Could Have Been Any of Us'
Until recently, the Blanco family had lived for more than 15 years in Noe Valley and nearby Glen Park. After Ramona "graduated" from Debra King last summer, they moved to San Rafael. In September, they invited friends to Marin County to help celebrate Ramona's fifth birthday.
"About one week later, Pete was having headaches and decided to go in and have them checked out. And that's when they found out he had a brain tumor," said Noe Street resident and friend Erika Holmgren.
"It was really scary. All of us have two children, as Pete does, and we felt that it could have been any of us that got the same diagnosis," said Holmgren.
Feely heard about the family's plight a short time later in October, during a reunion picnic for many of the preschool families. "I had to sit down when I was told. Tia and I were pregnant at the same time, and I feel a certain bond with her," said Feely.
Kids Design T-Shirts
As word of Blanco's illness spread, everyone began searching for ways to help. Feely's first thought was to organize families into a collective of meal preparers, which would afford Mallette more time to care for Blanco and the children. "Instinctively, you always want to make a casserole," she said.
That wasn't practical, however. One feature of Blanco's treatment is a plant-based, near-vegan diet that is designed to help him better tolerate his chemotherapy--and help fight the cancer itself. A special chef does the grocery shopping, cooks meals at the home twice a week, and leaves enough food to cover the remaining days.
"We decided to do a fundraiser to pay for the chef and meals," said Feely. To get the word out, she set up a web site (www.playgroundtoplayground.org). Six other families also played key roles, as did many children, who came up with kiddie-art drawings for T-shirts, which were later sold to walkers.
The group hoped the mini walkathon, with $50 pledges, would bring in at least $5,000--enough to pay Blanco's meal costs for four months.
"We raised $11,000. Isn't that amazing?" said Feely. "There were a couple of big donations, but for the most part, it was people just donating $50."
In late November, the web site was still up, and donations and well wishes were still rolling in.
Blanco remained positive, buoyed by the outpouring of support from his friends and community. Said Pete, "I mean, cancer sucks, but we feel so blessed to be the recipients of all this good will."