In January 2010, Christine Gianacaci was visiting Haiti with a team from Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., on a trip to help children and the underprivileged when she – along with five others – were killed in a massive earthquake that rocked that country.
When her parents, John and Jean Gianacaci, took on the unimaginable task of planning their daughter’s funeral, they both agreed that they had to find a way to continue their daughter’s good works. They also wanted to find a way to put the money that could be used for flowers to good use.
“At her funeral we decided, in lieu of flowers, we would start a foundation,” Mrs. Gianacaci says. “We decided to start a foundation to help underprivileged kids and kids with differences.”
Christine’s Hope for Kids was born.
The mission of the organization – helping to give kids a chance to just be kids – is significant in a number of ways to the Gianacaci family.
Christine grew up with learning differences and had been diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome, her mother says.
“She knew what the challenges were for kids like her,” Mrs. Gianacaci says. “She knew what that was like. She had a very big heart for kids that lived with adversity.”
Christine was able to attend college, and her Tourette’s syndrome waned with age, her mother says.
In college she became involved with Students for the Poor, a branch of the Food for the Poor organization. That’s where the other motivation behind the family’s foundation comes in.
“The kids went to Haiti to make a difference, and do some good, and they lost their lives doing it,” Jean Gianacaci. She says she felt “We have to do something to honor this.”
Gianacaci recalled her daughter’s experience on a similar trip in 2009 to Jamaica, and the changed outlook Christine had when she returned home.
“The things she saw, and the poverty she saw, were overwhelming for her,” Gianacaci says. “When you grow up here, you’re not exposed to poverty at that level.”
But what impacted Christine most, her mother says, were the children she met.
“What touched her heart the most were the kids who lived there,” Gianacaci says. “The kids were happy. They were in such poverty … but yet, they were happy.”
Jean and her husband, John, with the help of a part-time assistant and a score of volunteers, have since taken up Christine’s mission. To date, the foundation has given more than $300,000 in donations and in-kind support to organizations in New Jersey and across the country that work with children.
The family has decided to focus on helping children in the United States.
“Kids need help everywhere, but we wanted to stay here because there is a tremendous need right here in our very own country,” Gianacaci says.
Another benefit is the ability to more easily see the results of donations and support.
“I can see where our money goes,” Gianacaci says, adding that she makes sure donations are put to the right uses on behalf of supporters. “We are very grateful that people are willing – with all the choices they have – to donate to Christine’s Hope for Kids.”
From supporting community organizations such as Big Brothers-Big Sisters to partnering with schools to raise money or assembling pajama bags for disaster victims, Christine’s Hope for Kids has teamed with the wider community.
It also supports individual children, sending some to summer camps and providing equipment for others so that they can participate in athletics.
“Kids are shut out of games and activities because of money issues. It is overwhelming to me,” Gianacaci says. “Where will their memories be if they don’t get a chance to do anything?”
The foundation also helped bring a group of New Jersey kids to the seashore – for the first time.
“We sent kids to the Jersey shore last summer who have never seen the ocean,” she says. “And they live in Jersey.”
Another project supported youngsters taking a photography course in Florida – something Gianacaci hopes will be a positive memory for them whether they take up the hobby or not.
The Gianacaci family also aims to help teach kids how to help other kids. Partnering with schools can be a big part of achieving that goal.
“Everybody needs a little help some time,” Gianacaci says. “Just because you don’t have a brand-new bike doesn’t mean you are less of anything. It just means you don’t have a bike.”
While her formal title with Christine’s Hope for Kids is “president,” Gianacaci prefers to be called something else.
“I really like ‘mom’ the best,” she says.