ARMED WITH COMPASSION
CLAY EWING HOLDING GIORGIOS HAND, CLAY WAS DIAGNOSED WITH CANCER OF THE NERVOUS SYSTEM. THE COMBINATION OF EXPENSES, INSURANCE DEDUCTIBLES AND LOST INCOME CAUSED HIS FAMILY TO FALL BEHIND IN THEIR BILLS. GIORGIO SET UP A FUND FOR THE FAMILY, KEEPING THEM IN THEIR HOME AND HELPING WITH EXPENSES. CLAY WAS BURIED NOVEMBER 16, 1990.
The Guy Who Started A
By Mike Thomas
The tumor was as big as a thumb. In Heather Allen's backbone, it pushed against the delicate nerves in her spinal column, causing her head to tilt downward.
The three-year-old with curly brown hair and a sweet smile could not look up or straight ahead. Her chin seemed glued to her left shoulder.
Only one surgeon possessed the skill to remove the tumor, Heather's physicians said. That doctor was Fred Epstine in
"If it was my daughter," one of her doctors said, "I'd be on that plane now."
When contacted, Epstine agreed to do the operation. But there was no time to waste. It was a Wednesday, and he told the family to get to
There was a hitch, though. Heather's dad, Dan, was told his insurance company would pay only $300 a day for Heather's
A real-estate agent, Allen could get the money. He could raise it. But this would take a couple of days, time that Heather did not have.
If it was my daughter, I'd be on that plane now.
Check my credit, a desperate Allen told the hospital. I am good for the money. You are talking about a three-year-old. Why be concerned about money?
A neighbor told Allen to call the March of Dimes. But the March of Dimes could not help. The organization, did, though, tell Dan Allen about a group called the Compassion Children's Foundation.
As it turned out, the foundation - Allen's last hope was located in a cluttered garage in a nondescript subdivision outside
The car belongs to a man named Tony Giorgio, who works at Walt Disney World and makes far less money than Dan Allen. He can't, in fact, even afford to get his Rabbit fixed.
Tony Giorgio is Compassion Children's Foundation.
He listened to Dan Allen's story over the phone and said he would call him back. A half-hour later, he did. Pack your bags, Giorgio said.
Everything had been taken care of.
The hospital was waiting. Heather got her operation. Less than three weeks later, she was up and about.
A recent test showed the tumor has not come back. And each day Heather regains more head and neck movement.
How did Giorgio do it?
"They wanted a guarantee on the payment. So I faxed them an IOU." At the time, Giorgio's foundation had $200 in the bank.
It is unfortunate that children sometimes die because their families don't have enough money for treatment. "I don't want to suggest it is a major problem," says Dr. John Graham Pole, a pediatrics professor at the
"It is so expensive and so many children have catastrophic illnesses. There is no way the families can foot the bill. Tony is trying to do something. He can only touch the surface of the iceberg, but he tries. My gosh, he tries."
Tony Giorgio, 46, steps in when children are snubbed by insurance agencies, state welfare bureaucrats, and a medical establishment that wants its money guaranteed.
He looks, acts, and even talks a little like a young Rodney Dangerfield. He tugs constantly at the collar of his shirt, as if he is fighting off his tie’s attempt to strangle him. A large man at 6 feet 4 inches and 240 pounds, his posture is slightly stooped. He never seems to be still, even when sitting.
He charges into battle in his trusty, rusty, Rabbit, the one with the loud sputtering engine and interior that looks like it has been home to a pack of Great Danes.
Tony Giorgio looks very much like someone who has come to sell you aluminum siding.
"I don't have any affiliation," he explains, "so I can rattle anybody's chain I want."
Giorgio helps kids by getting doctors and hospitals to reduce or drop their charges. He goes over the heads of state bureaucrats by appealing directly to governors and representatives.
Giorgio also raises money. He washes cars and cooks spaghetti. He goes door-to-door. He calls corporations.
Giorgio works at the grass-roots level. He says laws need to be changed to help families with sick kids.
Truth be told, though, Giorgio doesn't even know the law well enough to recommend how it should be changed. He is not a big-picture man. If you assigned Giorgio the task of ending hunger in
Giorgio gets a lot of help from Laureen, his wife, who also works at Disney. She keeps the foundation's books straight.
They do their work in their spare time. They don't get paid for it. In fact, they lose quite a bit. Giorgio is paid by the hour at Disney and frequently dips into company time for his foundation work.
"He's a charity, we aren't," says Elliott Winit, general manager of central reservations operations for Disney. "We dock his time. We can't do any different for him than anyone else. We are flexible, but he takes it in the shorts, no doubt about it."
Out of his reduced pay, Giorgio often covers a lot of foundation expenses.
The story began six years ago near Kissimmee Fl., where the Giorgios lived. A neighborhood boy had leukemia.
The family did not have insurance. It could not get State assistance because one parent owned a small business.
The medical bills piled up. The family eventually lost the business, the house, and the car, and they were facing $27,000 in medical bills.
Giorgio held a fund-raiser. "I didn't know anything about fundraising," he says. "I'd just call all these companies and ask for money. Everywhere I called they asked if I was a tax-exempt organization. I said, 'No.' They said, 'No.' "
So Giorgio took his American Express card to an attorney's office and charged the $300 it cost to set up the Compassion Children's Foundation.
American Express canceled his card shortly thereafter because he exceeded his spending limit. "Yeah, well," he says, "I couldn't afford the card anyway. "
Giorgio did, however, raise $11,000 for the family and got
"I had been brainwashed into thinking kids always got help," he says. "Then I talked to people and I realized this was not the case."
There was a child from
Not all stories have such happy endings. When three-year-old Ross Farmer had cancer and needed a bone-marrow transplant, Shands Teaching Hospital in
Giorgio heard of the family's plight and helped them with fundraisers. After six weeks, he raised enough money for treatment. The delay in the bonemarrow transplant, though, had hurt the boy's chances of survival. "When something like that is needed," says his doctor, John Graham Pole, "it's needed tomorrow."
Ross died in early I 986, about seven months after the transplant.
The delay infuriated Giorgio. After the boy died, Ross's parents gave Giorgio the boy's Raggedy Ann doll. He keeps it in his garage office.
Since Ross's death, Girogio has spent practically all his free time working with families, generally handling one or two cases at a time. He helped a
A couple from
Then, there was Steven and Ann Ewing of
Giorgio set up a fund for the family, keeping them in their home and helping with expenses.
Chuck and Debbie Hilton, also of
Then the family’s insurance ran out. Bill collectors demanded money while the Hiltons struggled through losing their two businesses, a restaurant and a video store, which they couldn’t keep up while caring for Rusty. At one point, Debbie Hilton says, a state social worker actually told her she would be better off divorcing her husband so she would be eligible for Medicaid.
Giorgio recently helped the family get back on its feet by giving the Hiltons $1,000 to set up a small sandwich shop. And when Rusty Hilton turned one year old early in 1990, Giorgio went by the shop unannounced for his birthday party.
"He shows up in the beat-up old Rabbit and gives Rusty a $50 savings bond," says Chuck Hilton. "Geez, the guy's car is falling apart and he gives Rusty $50."
Tony Giorgio, the man who adopts
"I was the typical teenager in
He joined the Marines at 17, after graduating from high school. But he didn't last long because of medical problems with his feet. He was discharged early and took a job at a factory. He made extra money playing drums in a band.
Then he met Laureen on a blind date, and they married. He was 24; she was 21. They put everything they had into a hamburger stand on
Giorgio spent five weeks in the hospital. He had no insurance
"I was laying there and this hospital administrator comes by and throws the bill on my food tray," he says. "I couldn't believe it."
Giorgio lost the hamburger stand and applied for government assistance.
"Trying to get help when you're down is very, very difficult," he says. "They would lose paper work. Checks were late. That was my first experience with agencies that are supposed to help you."
Giorgio then suffered another setback, this time surgery to remove polyps from his voice box.
"Two guys from Social Security came by the house to hold a hearing on my eligibility. They sat at my bedside and told me I was not eligible, and I couldn't say anything. They got up and walked out and that was that."
Giorgio moved to
When the business went bust six years ago, the Giorgios moved to
"We have had so many ups and downs in our married life - lost a business, lost a house, always struggling." He says. "Time caught up with us. We are thinking of adopting now. We've always wanted kids. We love kids."
Giorgio is most animated when talking about kids.
"They say kids are the future of
May 18, 2001, Governor Bush signed a Bill into law preventing
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