Colonia High School football program partners with The Marisa Tufaro Foundation to bring Super Bowl fun to pediatric patients and families

February 04, 2020

Members of the Colonia High School football team gathered inside the high school cafeteria last week to tackle a community service project that benefited pediatric patients and their families at PSE&G Children's Specialized Hospital in New Brunswick.

Varsity players, volunteering their time on behalf of The Marisa Tufaro Foundation, filled Super Bowl gift bags containing snacks and football-themed items that the hospital’s Child Life staff shared with patients and their families during the hospital’s Super Bowl LIV watch party on Sunday afternoon.

The Rutgers University athletics department and an anonymous benefactor donated items for The Marisa Tufaro Foundation to use for its community service project with Colonia. Each patient also received an Amazon gift card and snacks, courtesy of The Marisa Tufaro Foundation.

Colonia assistant coach Ryan DonDiego joined football captains Chris Waldron, Josh Oluremi and teammate Jerry Charles in delivering the gift bags to the hospital last week.

The Marisa Tufaro Foundation’s leadership, Greg and Cyndi Tufaro, kicked off the community service project at Colonia High School with a brief presentation to the football players, which included the showing of a video about PSE&G Children’s Specialized Hospital.

The presentation was designed to give the student-athletes perspective and insight into the pediatric patients and families they were serving through the community service project.

Colonia head coach Tom Roarty said his players were moved watching the video and listening to the presentation about PSE&G Children’s Specialized Hospital, adding “they really poured their whole hearts into the project.”

As an outpatient, Marisa Tufaro received outstanding care from Children’s Specialized Hospital, benefiting most recently from physical therapy following her July 2016 heart transplant. A speech therapist from Children’s Specialized Hospital helped Marisa, who underwent her first open-heart surgery less than a day after birth, learn to drink from a bottle after Marisa for months had been receiving nourishment through a feeding tube.

The Marisa Tufaro Foundation has a longstanding partnership with Children’s Specialized Hospital, where the nonprofit has hosted an annual boardwalk-themed “Family Fun Night” each of the past two summers.

In addition, the nonprofit partnered with Teamwork Unlimited Foundation to provide medical alert bracelets for Children’s Specialized Hospital’s pediatric patients.

Players from Colonia High School have annually participated in the Autoland Classic, formerly known as the Snapple Bowl, a charity all-star football game from which all proceeds benefit Children’s Specialized Hospital and the Lakeview School, a program of the New Jersey Institute for Disabilities.

The game, which pits players from Middlesex County against a team of counterparts from Union County, has raised more than $700,000 over the past 26 years.

DonDiego has coached in the charity game for years and Colonia High School Athletics Director Ben LaSala has been involved with the contest in various capacities since its inception. In recent years, Colonia has hosted practices for the Middlesex County team.

“Woodbridge Township Schools are quite familiar with giving back and they may be the best in Middlesex County in doing so,” Autoland Classic founder and director Marcus Borden said of the district, whose high schools include Colonia, J.F. Kennedy and Woodbridge, the latter of which has hosted the charity all-star game.

“Seeing a video and learning about Children’s Specialized Hospital is a good experience for (Colonia players), given the relationship between the hospital and the Lakeview School and our game.”

In addition to visiting elementary schools in the district – reading and interacting with students – Colonia football players have previously partnered with The Marisa Tufaro Foundation on another community service project.

They delivered nonperishable food items the high school collected in Marisa’s name during the football team’s 2018 home opener to the Hands of Hope Food Pantry, which serves Middlesex County families.

“That’s something that starts at home,” Woodbridge Township Superintendent of Schools Robert Zega said of Colonia’s volunteerism. “The parents are the kids’ first teachers and that’s something you have to credit the parents with. We try to reinforce it in the schools – giving back and service to others, and just helping your fellow human being. It’s a big part of social and emotional learning, which are big topics in public education right now. We feel that’s a heavy lift we couldn’t do without the parents, teachers, coaches and every adult in their lives.”

Zega said Colonia student-athletes receive more than they give through their involvement in projects such as that which benefitted PSE&G Children’s Specialized Hospital’s patients.

“Ninety-nine percent of our kids won’t become pro athletes, so I think it’s part of the value of the high school athletics experience,” Zega said, noting student-athletes district-wide “all chip in and do some community service and help out, not only in the community outside of school, but they go around and visit (district elementary and middle) schools and try to be active and positive role models for the younger kids.”

Roarty credited DonDiego with reaching out to The Marisa Tufaro Foundation to partner with the nonprofit on a community service project.

“Me and Ryan talked right after the season and we wanted to get the kids involved in some community service stuff,” Roarty said. “He did a great job putting this together. Ryan does a great job with everything he comes in contact with, from running our defense, to running the weight room to now getting us involved in community service stuff.”

The Marisa Tufaro Foundation was established in loving memory of its namesake, who passed away at the age of 13 three years ago.

Since its inception on July 30, 2017, the nonprofit has already made a profound impact, donating more than $125,000 to assist pediatric patients and other children in need throughout the greater Middlesex County area.

The foundation, which makes community service an integral part of its mission, has also spearheaded multiple initiatives, resulting in the collection of thousands of toys, nonperishable food items, winter coats, baby supplies and other items for donation upon which the nonprofit has placed no monetary value.

Marisa, who would have been a junior this year at Edison High School, was born with a complex cardiac defect that required six open-heart surgeries. Despite being hospitalized for more than two years and maintaining hundreds of doctor’s appointments, she lived a vibrant life that inspired. After her sixth surgery, Marisa developed two life-threatening conditions that necessitated a heart transplant. A postoperative complication developed into a rare form of cancer that riddled her brain and body. Marisa succumbed to her illness following a valiant battle on Jan. 30, 2017.

Children’s Specialized Hospital, which annually serves more than 38,000 children, is the nation’s leading provider of inpatient and outpatient care for children from birth to 21 years of age facing special health challenges – from chronic illnesses and complex physical disabilities like brain and spinal cord injuries, to developmental and behavioral issues like autism and mental health. At 13 different New Jersey locations, their pediatric specialists partner with families to make their many innovative therapies and medical treatments more personalized and effective so each child can reach their full potential.