Pine-Richland student's family hosting Make-A Wish fundraiser
Zachary Kass-Gerji wanted to be a marine biologist.
Last July, he fulfilled that wish by training dolphins at Atlantis Paradise Island resort in the Bahamas.
“It was the first time he'd been happy since his diagnosis,” says his sister, Rachel Miller of Cranberry.
The Pine-Richland High School student died March 26 after a 20-month battle with Alveolar Rhabsomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer.
Although bedridden throughout much of his illness, Zachary was able to live his dream thanks to Make-A-Wish Greater Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Since its formation in 1983, the chapter — which is headquartered in Pittsburgh — has helped 18,000 children in 57 counties.
The average cost of a wish is $4,400.
“A volunteer team of two met with Zach and his family and found out that he wanted to be a marine biologist, so his wish to swim with dolphins fit perfectly with his interests,” says Stephanie Pugliese, director of development for Make-A-Wish.
“It was determined that Zach, with his mother and sister, would visit the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas and Zach would have the opportunity to swim and learn about dolphins. So the family had a wonderful time away from doctors, hospitals and pin pricks.”
Grateful for his experience, Zachary, 16, wanted to make sure other kids with life-threatening medical conditions could feel the same kind of joy.
On May 20, his family hosted a fundraiser at The Clubhouse in Gibsonia. All proceeds from Zachary's Wish will go to the local Make-A-Wish branch.
Held from 12 to 9 p.m., the event included a 50-50 raffle, a Chinese auction and a silent auction featuring restaurant gift certificates, game tickets and autographed Pittsburgh sports memorabilia.
Zachary was an avid black-and-gold fan and served as a goaltender on his high school soccer team. He even unfurled a 90-foot Terrible Towel at Heinz Field before a Steelers game.
The family's goal is to raise $10,000, which will fulfill two wishes.
“We want to do as much as we can,” Miller explains. “That's what my brother wanted. He always wanted to help others.”
Even in his final days, she says, Zachary was more concerned about the well-being of his loved ones.
His mom, Debra Kass-Gerji, was in remission after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014 and Miller was fighting a bout of pneumonia.
Zachary told her he'd look after her son while she went to the doctor's office.
If the inaugural event is a success, Zachary's Wish will become an annual tradition.
“We feel like giving back will help the healing process,” Miller says.
“We're doing it for him. He was my baby brother age-wise but he was my big brother in every other way.”
To make a donation in Zach's name, or for more information about Make-A-Wish Greater Pennsylvania and West Virginia, visit greaterpawv.wish.org.
Kristy Locklin is a Tribune-Review contributor.