Chiarella family keeps daughter’s name, memory alive

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WILDWOOD — Beth Chiarella spent her daughter Gia’s last Christmas at Cooper Hospital in Camden in 1998. Gia, who lived with her family in North Wildwood, died suddenly on Dec. 29 at age 13.

She said the family, including her husband Vincent and Gia’s younger sister Mia, turned their grief into charity. Each year since Gia’s death, the family collects toys from area schools, civic organizations and individuals and distributes them to the children who have to spend their holidays in Cooper Hospital.

“It has turned into a tribute to her,” said Chiarella.

Gia Chiarella was an eighth grade student at Margaret Mace Elementary School who didn’t let her bouts with asthma interfere with her love of gymnastics.

Her family owns Gia restaurant on Pacific Avenue in Wildwood and Chiarella said that the gifts are collected under the Christmas tree there.

“Everyone from customers to school to civic groups drop off gifts,” she said. “It’s wonderful to watch the tree fill up with donations.”

Chiarella said she loves looking through the donations that go to kids aged newborn to 18 years old, including the unique and handmade gifts.

“Every year Cass Fitzpatrick hand crochets these beautiful stockings and puts stuffed animals inside them,” she said. “I can’t believe how much time and energy she puts into the gifts every year and we couldn’t be more grateful.”

Each donated gift is labeled a gift from Gia and the donation is made to Copper Hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit the Tuesday before Christmas.

“The staff was wonderful to the patients and their families, by at this time of the year, the despair is completely overwhelming,” said Chiarella.

She said that it was her daughter’s friends that originally came up with the donation gift drive. In 1999, the first year the family held the gift donation drive, they delivered a van full of gifts.

In a couple of years, Chiarella said that Mia told her she wanted to help with delivery.

“I told her it would be hard, but she was determined. I remember buying her and her friends a bunch of Santa hats for them to wear,” she said.

Chiarella said that although she keeps in touch with the staff and a number of patients, she still can’t bring herself to walk through the doors of the pediatric unit.

“It is enough for me to hear the stories,” she said.

Chiarella said Mia, now 23, has mostly taken over the donation drive in honor of her older sister.

Last year, Chiarella said there were 1,473 gifts and it took five full trucks and about a dozen volunteers to distribute them all. There are so many gifts, she said, that Cooper has cleared an entire supply closet to house the donations.

“There are enough gifts for the staff to give them out to the family members, too,” she said. “I know from experience that a family member might want to hold on to a stuffed animal while their brother or sister is in surgery.”

The gifts are also given out through the entire year, she said.

Chiarella said the families often ask where the gift came from. Chiarella said the staff tells the patients Gia’s story and her name and memory will go on.

Those interested in making a donation may drop an unwrapped gift at Gia Restaurant, located at 3001 Pacific Ave. in Wildwood.

 

Lauren Suit can be e-mailed at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or you can comment on this story by calling 624-8900, ext 250.

 


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