In 2000, 2-year-old Morgan Zuch, of Bay Shore, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The condition greatly suppressed her immune system, to the point where she could rarely be around others, let alone attend preschool.
As her mother, Nancy Zuch, watched Morgan play with a fellow pediatric patient during her weekly rounds of chemotherapy at Schneider Children’s Hospital, Nancy came to the realization that children with cancer should have a place to learn, socialize and have fun just like any other child. Nothing like that existed until the Zuch family founded the Morgan Center, in Hicksville, a preschool for kids with childhood cancer.
At the YOLO Strong Foundation’s first fundraiser gala on June 15, Morgan, who’s now 20 and has been in remission since May 2003, spoke about the organization’s efforts to contribute to children who have been deprived of their childhood due to illness. YOLO stands for “you only live once.”
“In the beginning, YOLO was just a few moms who wanted to make a difference,” Morgan said, “and I’m honored to be involved in its growth and accomplishments. These ladies are a true inspiration whose hard work, sweat and love is incredibly important to helping children like me.”
YOLO Strong was founded by Danielle Taylor, of Oyster Bay, and Jeannine Del Pozzo, of East Norwich, who have been friends since high school. In 2013, they signed up for the Civilian Military Combine race in Brooklyn, and used the Morgan Center as a motivating force to complete the course. The foundation was established shortly afterward, with the mission of making a meaningful impact in the lives of children dealing with life-changing circumstances.
“It was really important to us to find a charity that was dear to our hearts, and it has just grown tremendously,” Del Pozzo said. “We want people to try to do things that are out of their comfort zone and raise awareness for things that are important.”
At last year’s race, the YOLO team was 72 women strong — the board itself is governed exclusively by women. It prompted the founders to spread their generosity to other charities in the form of last month’s fundraising gala, which was held at Mill Neck Manor.
“We didn’t even know if we could fill a venue like this,” Taylor said, “But everyone rose to the occasion, and it’s just unbelievable. Everyone’s really supporting us in our next rite of passage.”
In addition to the Morgan Center, the proceeds from YOLO’s “Party with a Purpose” will benefit children at Angela’s House, Contractors for Kids, Danny’s Wish and St. Dominic’s Outreach. The funds raised just from the evening’s festivities are enough to pay a mortgage for a family affected by cancer for two years and send six children to the center, Taylor said.
“The [foundation has] brought happiness into children’s lives, and it’s just meant so much that they use our children as an inspiration to train and work hard and do these amazing races,” Zuch said. “They’re our inspiration.”
The foundation has grown so much that now one race is not enough. Taylor said that YOLO is sponsoring a team of youngsters that will take part in Long Island’s Youth City Challenge obstacle course in August. “One of the things we could’ve never imagined that materialized from this was our children’s interest,” she said. “They see us giving back, and they want to be a part of it, too.”
For more information about the foundation, visit www.yolostrong.com.