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Everyday Heroes: Maria Fundora

Maria Fundora looked out on the crowd at her annual fundraising dinner for pancreatic cancer research, and she saw hope.

Twelve survivors of one of the deadliest forms of cancer were there, and that was hugely uplifting to Maria.

“When I first started, there were no survivors in the room, only family members and friends who, like me, have lost someone to pancreatic cancer,” she said.

But then she remembered the 38-year-old, married mother of three who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on June 3 of this year and was dead on June 10. And so she goes on.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Between 2017 and 2021, Maria -- owner of the popular Casa Nuova Italian restaurant in Alpharetta -- raised nearly $3.1 million for pancreatic cancer research through her nonprofit, Purple Pansies. Top doctors say her efforts for pancreatic cancer research are unprecedented and changing the life trajectory of patients.

At that sold-out fundraising dinner in September, Maria was excited to raise $850,00, $200,000 above the $650,000 goal.

But she’d still love to close out the year with $1 million, boosted by Giving Tuesday (Nov. 29), the recognition of November as National Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, and the holiday giving season. A large donor helped them reach $1.2 million in 2020, and in Maria’s mind, there’s no turning back.

“There’s just so much work to be done, so many people to help,” she said.

The American Cancer Society estimates that 62,210 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and 49,830 people will die from the disease this year. Pancreatic cancer has one of the lowest five-year survival rates of any major cancer, and for those diagnosed in the late stages, the five-year survival rate is 3%, according to the National Pancreatic Cancer Foundation.

Maria has been dedicated to the cause since losing her mother, Illuminada Milian, to Stage 4 pancreatic cancer in 2007. It went for Illuminada the way it has gone for so many. At the time of her diagnosis, she was told to put her affairs in order. She tried an aggressive form of chemotherapy but died within three months of diagnosis at age 72.

Maria and her late husband, Tony, made their family-owned farm-to-table restaurant the centerpiece of her fundraising. The year after her mother’s death, they opened their restaurant for the first time on a Mother’s Day and gave the day’s receipts, about $3,000, to pancreatic research.

Purple Pansies, which Maria founded in 2017, gives a majority of the money it raises to support research at the Translational Genomics Research Institute, or TGen, in Phoenix, Arizona. The organization also gives financial support to families struggling due to pancreatic cancer, as well as scholarships to students who have lost a parent or guardian to the disease.

Daniel Van Hoff, an oncologist and researcher at TGen, said Maria is attacking pancreatic cancer with the same type of energy that the late Susan G. Komen’s sister displayed in the 1980s, helping turn the tide for breast cancer patients.

“She has had a major impact,” Von Hoff said.

Atlanta oncologist Carlos Franco, who was Maria’s mother’s doctor, said: “Nobody has been able to do what Maria has done for pancreatic cancer.”

Purple Pansies has two main fundraisers a year. One is an outdoor Italian feast for restaurant patrons and the entire community. The other is the September gala that’s outgrown Maria’s restaurant but never its food and is now held at The Metropolitan Club in Alpharetta.

Maria thought Purple Pansies was an appropriate name for the nonprofit. Purple was already the color for pancreatic awareness, and pansies are known for their resilience, she said.

Resilient also could describe Maria.

Maria had a liver transplant in 2019, and she still put in an appearance at the gala a couple of weeks later. And at 63, she runs her popular restaurant and works tirelessly to help finance research that could one day lead to earlier detection, better survival rates, and, ultimately, a cure.

Last year, she was appointed to the National Pancreatic Cancer Council, which includes well-known people who have lost loved ones to the disease, including New York Yankees General Manager Brian McGuire Cashman.

Maria feels good about what’s being done.

“It continues to be energizing,” she said.

HOW TO HELP

November is National Pancreatic Cancer Awareness month, and give if you can. Donate to Purple Pansies: Donate – Purple Pansies

On Giving Tuesday, Nov. 29, make Purple Pansies your charity of choice.

Shopping at Amazon for the holidays, choose Purple Pansies as your charity of choice on smile.amazon.com. Purple Pansies will receive 0.5% of your eligible purchases

Share the news with people in need: Purple Pansies has a grants program to support patients and families fighting pancreatic cancer and hurting financially. The nonprofit provides emergency grants on very short notice, so help is there when needed. Let people know that Purple Pansies also is launching a “buddyup” program. A volunteer will help with research and paperwork and offer the support of another pair of hands when needed. Go to the Purple Pansies website for more info.

ExploreMeet more Everyday Heroes from the AJC and our news partners


WE’RE STRONGER TOGETHER: A SPECIAL PROJECT

This place we call home is filled with ordinary people who accomplish extraordinary feats. Their selfless acts make this region so special – and they bring out the best in all of us. With the holidays upon us, we wanted to share their inspiring stories, celebrate their accomplishments, and offer ways that you can help.

Just as the 55 people we’re profiling can’t do it alone, nor can we. That’s why we worked closely with our partners to bring you this collection of uplifting stories.

We hope they leave you feeling inspired and ready to tackle the busy new year that lies ahead. We hope they make you feel more connected to your community or to your neighbors.

And maybe, just maybe, they will motivate you to come up with your own small way to make a big difference in the lives of others.

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