NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — During a funeral two years ago of a girl she met in elementary school, a tough insight to life came to teenager Samantha “Sami” Ronci.
“I remember sitting there thinking to myself, this can’t happen. Kids shouldn’t be dying. Ella should be going to high school,” she said about her thoughts as a then 15 year-old.
Ella Integlia, 14, had died in August 2019 from leukemia after a hard-fought fight, which brought remission at one point, yet returned without relenting the next time. It tapped into Ronci’s percolating emotions and stirred within her that she should help others.
Today that effort has brought about “Sami’s Sendoffs” of baskets of cheer — whether toys, stuff animals, Legos or other special things — that children fighting cancer need to help keep up their spirits and know they remain in the hearts of many people.
Ronci, 17, said that she has sent more than 85 gift baskets around the country since starting the effort in early 2020 —and before the COVID-19 pandemic hit — and about six months after Integlia’s funeral.
Putting It Together
The funeral and knowing that life can be short tapped into a sense about living she’s had for many years, the North Kingstown High School senior said.
“When I was eight I told my mother I wanted to do something for kids with cancer. She asked what was I going to do and how was I going to do it?” Ronci said, noting that cancer was a disease that so far not found in her close family members.
“So, I made a poster that said, ‘Help Kids With Cancer’ and my little sister and I stood on her front lawn and collected $200 over three days,” she said. “It was great that that was a lot of money to us.”
As the years passed, she still continued to hold to the idea of helping kids with cancer, but Integlia’s passing made her put thoughts into action.
Her first outreach went to the Navarra family who lives in Virginia. She learned about them and their daughter through people involved in helping others cope with childhood cancers.
Their six-year-old daughter, Emily, had medulloblastoma and, like Integlia, remission did not hold and it had returned in a severe way.
Ronci said she sent her in late March of 2020 a build-a-bear to help lift her spirits and give some comfort in what Ronci and the family knew were her final days. On April 15 last year Emily died from the disease.
Emily and the many others she has found to send a gift have come through advocates for cures of childhood cancer.
In 2021, it is estimated that 15,590 children and adolescents, ranging in age from 0 to 19, will be diagnosed with cancer and 1,780 will die of the disease in the United States . Among children ages 0 to 14 years, it is estimated that, in 2021, 10,500 will be diagnosed with cancer and 1,190 will die of the disease, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Childhood Cancer Awareness Month
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month. Although cancer in children is rare, it is the leading cause of death by disease past infancy among children in the United States.
The most common types of cancer are leukemias, brain and central nervous system tumors, and lymphomas. As of January 1, 2018, the most recent date for which data exist, approximately 483,000 survivors of childhood and adolescent cancer were alive in the United States .
The number of survivors will continue to increase, given that the incidence of childhood cancer has been rising slightly in recent decades and that survival rates overall are improving. The overall outlook for children and adolescents with cancer, according to the institute, has improved greatly over the last half-century.
In the mid-1970s, 58% of children (ages 0 to 14 years) and 68% of adolescents (ages 15 to 19 years) diagnosed with cancer survived at least 5 years. In 2010–2016, 84.1% of children and 85.3% of adolescents diagnosed with cancer survived at least 5 years.
Ronci was honored Tuesday by the Rhode Island General Assembly for her work. Recognized by State Rep. Julie A. Casimiro (D-Dist. 31, North Kingstown, Exeter), the teenager was part of Casimiro’s effort to have the state officially recognize childhood cancer in its statewide cancer plan, Ronci said.
“Samantha brought to my attention that Rhode Island lacks a childhood cancer prevention and treatment plan and with her own experience of helping those suffering from childhood cancer, I wanted to thank this incredible young woman for all that she has done to ease the suffering of these kids fighting cancer,” Casimiro said.
Other Local Involvement
But Ronci didn’t just stop with the recognition by the state or getting state planning to include it.
She has recruited an 11-year-old South Kingstown resident and childhood cancer survivor also dealing with continuous treatment to be her junior president.
Shannon McGarty has a grade 2 diffuse astrocytoma in the cerebellum. She was diagnosed at eight years-old. Her family watched her for about a year and a half, and then her tumor, who Shannon named Birtha, started growing.
She has had two brain surgeries in the summer of 2020 and had a year of stability, but the tumor is growing again. She is now undergoing chemotherapy to help stop the growth of her tumor, according to Ronci’s website for the program (samissendoffs.com).
McGarty told The Independent this week through her mother, “Sami is amazing for doing this at such a young age. I can’t wait to help make baskets for other kids with cancer. I have always liked volunteering and this will mean a lot to me.”
Ronci said that herself, along with her mother, Kara, and their accountant are seeking to set up a non-profit foundation so that “Sami’s Sendoffs” can continue and collect donations.
After graduation in 2022 from high school, she wants to become a physician’s assistant and then work in childhood cancer oncology, perhaps at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Tennessee.
She said that some people have called her an “old soul,” a reference to those who seem to have inherent wisdom and a grounded sense of being in the world—often far more than would be expected for someone their age.
Deeper, though, she suspects that her Christian faith also called her to some kind of action.
“Some seed was planted in my heart that was also spiritual. Little by little his has grown and now it’s blossoming,” she said.