BROOKFIELD — Daniele Santucci is a fighter.
Born with cerebral palsy, Daniele, 6, of North Riverside, was diagnosed with liver cancer in October 2012, just weeks after her birthday. Chemotherapy has sapped her energy, but not her spirit.
Her local community is full of fighters too. Over the last several months, residents of North Riverside, Riverside and Brookfield have come together to raise money to help her family.
At a pep-rally March 19 at Riverside Brookfield High School, Daniele and her family were presented with a check that read "greater than $10,000" — the amount students have been able to raise to help Daniele's family pay for her treatment and recovery. But the assembly was about more than just presenting a big check, it was about making Daniele an honorary Bulldog — a full-fledged member of the RB community.
A smile lit up Daniele's face as RB's mascot, a giant bulldog, appeared at her side after whipping the crowd into a frenzy. Students also presented Daniele with a gift basket filled with goodies that included an RB student ID card. Although it will be years still before she's able to use it, it was a token from students who have found her strength inspiring.
"It's been rough," her mom, Dana, said with a long sigh as she recounted the last few months. "But with the support of the community we've been able to make it through."
Emily Filec, 17, a senior at RB and a member of the school's Student Association, said it has been a lot of work organizing the collection of donations, various fundraisers and the rally — but well worth it just to see the look on Daniele's face as students packed into the gym's bleachers chanted her name.
"We wanted to do something meaningful," said Filec of students' efforts. "It's an incredible feeling to see it all come together."
Filec and other students organized bake sales, salsa tastings, a benefit at Noodles and Compay in La Grange and signed up kids to shave their heads in support of Daniele. Locks of hair were also donated to the Pantean Beautiful Lengths program to be made into wigs.
In past years, Filec said students have raised money for the St. Baldrick's Foundation, but decided this year to raise the money for a local resident in need.
Daniele is doing well, her parents said. In December, she went through surgery to remove 70 percent of her liver and has just one more round of chemotherapy to go. They are looking forward to her strength returning over time and dream of her heading back to school next year, a prospect she's excited by as well.
In all, students raised $13,233 with the Dreams for Danielle fundraiser — but maybe more importantly, they were able to put a smile on her face.