Mom hosts bingo nights for charity started in memory of her son

Marianne Ricciardi might have lost her son to Ewing's Sarcoma, but her battle against the disease is far from over.

The Huntley woman keeps fighting because she believes that's what her son, Pasquale (Patsy), would have wanted.

Patsy died at age 25, having been diagnosed with the disease three and a half years earlier. He worked in the cement business, played football and enjoyed body-building at the time.

"He could disarm somebody with his personality within a matter of minutes," his mother said. "He was that kind of kid."

Marianne remembers a day, near the end, when both were worn down from treatments, tests and bad news. Patsy patted his mother on the leg, told her, "We have to make the best of it."

Unlike most with the disease, a cancer of the bone or soft tissue, Patsy was diagnosed at an older age. 

He shared a hospital floor with mainly children, all fighting to survive. He saw families, like his, struggling both emotionally and financially. He'd hear crying from nearby hospital rooms, knock on the door and ask if he could come in. He'd draw cartoons, talk with the kids about superheroes or wrestlers, or play video games.

"You have to do something to help these kids," he told his mother.

So that's what she's done.

A former nurse, she created Wings of an Angel, a charity in his honor designed to help families facing Ewing's Sarcoma with support, direction and assistance. 

To raise money to do so, she hosts Bingo weekly at McHenry VFW Post 4600. The profits from the Tuesday night games go toward Chicago Thunder Children's Charity, a nonprofit group that assists children who are underprivileged or battling life-threatening illnesses. 

The Friday night games go toward Wings of An Angel. Ricciardi is part of both groups. 

In the hole since beginning this month, those involved strive to draw in more players. 

"Now Bingos are a dime a dozen, and the economy isn't helping," Ricciardi said. "But still, it gives us the opportunity to get more on a weekly basis than we would any other way short of robbing a house."

What serves as a game, perhaps a way to win money for many, has become a lifeline for Wings of an Angel and the families it supports. Families routinely in and out of the hospital, parents missing work and facing endless medical bills. 

"When you're a single mom and one of your kids has a terminal illness, and there's no milk in the refrigerator for your 3 year old, $5 is a lot of money," Ricciardi said. "I take the money directly to these people so there's no middle man."

A part of support groups for the families, Ricciardi hears their stories, helps in any way she can. 

She once bought tickets for the Nutcracker for a family because a little girl wanted to grow up to be a ballerina.

She's called funeral homes to get free or reduced services for families that just couldn't afford them.

"I've lived through it already," she said. "It's helpful, but it drags you down a bit sometimes. If you can be of help to someone, that's what inspires me.

"These people are lost. I had medical knowledge, and still I was lost when it came to this disease. Imagine a mom with two little ones that works at McDonalds. It's not what you have. It's what you do."

That's how Patsy lived, she said.

He lived by the words, "I will not let this derail me," his mother said. "His motto was 'bravery, courage, strength and hope.' He fought for almost four years."

This was a time when physicians basically were offering little hope or direction. Ricciardi researched online, found as many treatments for her son as possible. 

In the end, he was denied access to a clinical trial for stem cell research because the disease had advanced too much. Ricciardi was angry, tried to push for his involvement.

Patsy told her, "Mom, you know all these kids I've met? If I have to take a pass so they have a shot with this, then that's what I have to do."

Ricciardi has carried on his inspiration, say those who've been drawn in by her passion.

All those involved with Bingo are volunteers. Because the games support charities, those working at them cannot get paid or rewarded at all. 

Four regular volunteers travel bi-weekly to McHenry from Huntley to help. 

They all first met Ricciardi at another Bingo game she hosts Mondays at the American Legion in Huntley to raise money for her charity. They came as players, left as supporters.

"You've got to know Marianne," said Michelle Altmann, who volunteers with her husband, Mark. "You can just see it in her eyes what this means to her. It's like a magnet. 

"You just want to do it. You see how passionate she is about this and the love she has for her son and how much she wants to do this for him."

A teacher, Altmann works with children all day and can't imagine the suffering some of these families have gone through. She volunteers both in Huntley and McHenry. 

"Sometimes it's tough because not all people are happy campers, but we do what we have to do to help these children," she said. 

Another couple, Kathy and Larry Cariato of Huntley, also makes the trip to McHenry bi-weekly, along with volunteering in Huntley. Retired, the two had gone to a Huntley Bingo game looking for something to do.

They now do what they can to help Ricciardi.

"This makes her happy. This is what she lives to do. She lives for these kids," Kathy Cariato said. "She's got a heart of gold. That's all I can tell you."

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