“My wife had a beautiful smile,” says Patrick Gonnelli. “People couldn’t understand how she had more energy than anyone else they knew.” When Barbara was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1989, Gonnelli retired from corporate life as a partner and chief financial officer at Towers Perrin, a global professional services firm, to spend time with her at their Oakland home. Barbara’s captivating smile never faded during her courageous thirteen-year battle with the disease. She died in 2003.
A year after her death, Gonnelli and his wife’s colleagues at Bergen Gastroenterology, where she worked part-time in patient relations, created the Smile Forever Foundation as a tribute to her boundless spirit and legacy of philanthropy. The Old Tappan-based organization provides financial assistance to cancer-stricken families that have exhausted their own resources because of high medical costs.
The all-volunteer Smile Forever team has raised $550,000 for about 200 families, primarily in New Jersey. Smile Forever now aids families affected by any disabling illness, with a special focus on autism because of its high incidence rate in the Garden State.
Gonnelli visits about 80 percent of the foundation’s beneficiaries, an extra step that he says “gives the organization a face and makes the families feel like they aren’t getting a handout,” just as his wife would have wanted. “We help people who try to help themselves,” he says. “We bridge that gap for everyday financial burdens such as college educations, mortgages, and, unfortunately, funerals.”
For Gonnelli, 65, a father of three and grandfather of nine, Smile Forever has been a blessing. “When Barbara passed, I didn’t want to live anymore, so this thing became perfect,” he says. “It helps me as much as it helps the families.”
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