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Ryan J. Zawada Memorial Fund

402 days.  Joe Zawada remembers the number precisely.  That was the span of time between Ryan’s diagnosis and his death.  Ryan, the son of Joe and Diane Zawada, was diagnosed with Desmoplastic Small Round Cell Tumor (DSRCT) on February 22, 2008 when he was nine years old. He died on April 1, 2009 when he was ten.  An aggressive cancer that primarily strikes young males, DSRCT is extremely rare.  According to Joe, “It affects only 35-55 people worldwide each year.” 

The Zawada family includes another son, Joseph, and a daughter, Jennifer, who is Ryan’s 14-year-old twin sister.  “Jennifer was always the outgoing twin,” observes Joe, “the more dominant and gregarious one.  Ryan was quieter, but they were very close. When Ryan became ill, Jenny wanted to be with him constantly.  She wouldn’t leave his sick room.  She still has pictures and mementos of him all over her room.”  Ryan’s presence is very real to everyone in the family.  “We talk about him easily and often,” says Joe, smiling.  “We’ll see something and say ‘Ryan would love that.’”

Establishing a charitable fund in their son’s name came naturally to the Zawadas.  “We dealt with so many negatives in the past,” Joe says.  “The Fund is about the future and about positives.  We’re so grateful to the Community Foundation for all the help they’ve given us in creating the Fund.”  Grants from the Ryan J. Zawada Memorial Fund have been made to the Ironton Parent Teacher Organization and to the Parkland High School for the benefit of students in the Parkland Area School District. 

Once, when he was ill, Ryan asked his parents, “If something happens to me, will anyone remember me?”  Not only do Ryan’s family and friends remember him, but the students receiving scholarships in his name also think of him.  “They’ll write to us,” Joe says, “to thank us for the scholarship assistance, and they’ll also say things like, ‘I often think of Ryan.’”

For Joe and Diane, “Legacy means keeping a spirit alive.  We saw an inner beauty in Ryan that others who never knew him weren’t able to see, but they’ll see it in the beauty and caring of what is being done in his name and memory.  What we saw in Ryan that caring - that sensitivity that’s what we want to keep alive and keep moving forward.”

Joe says that his son never asked, “Why?” or “Why me?”  “He worried about his mom and me having to go to the hospital to visit him,” remembers Joe.  “In a school project, he was asked to write about ‘the most important thing,’ and he wrote about his family.  That’s what mattered to him-his family.”

Ryan went to Ironton Elementary School as much as he could during his illness.  “He wasn’t the best student in the world,” Joe remarks, “but he enjoyed school and being with others. What he was best at was knowing life’s lessons at an early age, having sensitivity, and knowing what matters most. Winning wasn’t important to him – including everyone in the game was what mattered to him. If he had a new toy, he’d want to share it or give it away. If there was a kid on the playground, Ryan was the one who would talk to him and make a new friend. He taught me about life.”

Four years after Ryan’s death, there are still difficult moments.  “People deal with grief in different ways,” says Joe.  “They have to do it in their own way.  You don’t get closure, you don’t get comfortable, and you don’t get answers.  You keep second-guessing yourself, but being involved with other pediatric cancer parents has helped; sharing information with them, letting them know that you know what they’re going through, all of that is helpful.”

“When you go through something like this,” Joe muses, “your perspective changes.  Earnings and profit and loss statements don’t matter as much.  You know what matters-life and family.  Just as Ryan knew all along.”