When Daniel Viera’s daughter Lauren was 16 months old, she was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia. “When you go through a cancer diagnosis with a child, it just changes everything,” he recalled. “And what you think is normal — and I use that term very loosely — isn’t normal anymore.”
As Viera and his wife Katrina worked with doctors to bring Lauren back to health, he became more cognizant of the struggles of families with children who were fighting cancer. “We realized that children weren’t able to be kids and the dynamic would change for families,” said Viera. “We wanted to start an organization that would help them get a sense of normal.”
Viera, who runs a snow-plowing business in Shelton and previously worked with his father’s landscaping business, decided to create a nonprofit that would bring that elusive sense of normalcy to families coping with a medical crisis. In May 2016, one-and-a-half years after Lauren’s diagnosis, Viera launched LivFree, with the goal of providing children and their families with an experience that would offer a break from treatment for some much-needed family fun time.
“It’s a wish organization,” Viera explained. “We ask them what they would like to do locally to enjoy family time and we make it happen.”
This includes family visits at “pretty much every amusement park in this area,” along with movies and trips to the zoo. Unlike similar organizations such as the Make-a-Wish Foundation, Viera seeks to keep the experiences at a more modest level that incorporates the entire family unit. “We don’t want to do a big production. We just want to do normal stuff that you would do as a family,” he said.
To finance its altruism, LivFree hosts three fundraisers a year to generate funds. “We’ve done movie nights and ice skating on the green in Fairfield, and we charge a fee for the public,” Viera stated. “One hundred percent of their donations help families. Once we raise that money, we find the families through the hospitals and our network.”
Families chosen by LivFree include pediatric cancer patients who are either undergoing treatment or are out of treatment. While Viera initially planned to have LivFree focus on helping Connecticut families, he has provided experiences for families from other states.
“We’ve flown a family from Minnesota to spend a weekend in New York City and meet the Minnesota Timberwolves as they played the Knicks,” he continued. “We also worked with a young boy who was able to hang out with the Boston Celtics. He met all of the players and attended the game the next day.”
Although he has no previous experience in event planning, Viera has not encountered problems in arranging for the LivFree excursions. “The head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves is from Connecticut, so one of our supporters knew him personally and reached out to him to make it happen,” he explained. “The Celtics was simple. We just emailed the Celtics and got it set up pretty fast.”
Viera relies on social media and word of mouth to promote LivFree, noting that no money is allocated to advertising. “We try to be responsible with the funds that we receive,” he said, adding the sponsorship support from local companies has helped the nonprofit’s operations budget.
Viera noted that the seasonal nature of his snow- plowing business helps him focus on running LivFree during the snow-free seasons. If there is one drawback, he admitted, it is maintaining the nonprofit from his home and not having a stand-alone facility to host events.
“Last February, we did a fundraising event outdoors for three days and it rained all three days,” he said. “Luckily, because of the sponsors, we broke even.”
Since its launch, LivFree has provided experiences for 97 families. Looking forward, Viera stated that he wanted “to help as many people as I can” while boosting the morale of the target families.
And as for the young inspiration behind LivFree, Viera happily reported that his daughter Lauren has been cancer-free for two years. “She’s all done with her chemo treatment,” he said, beaming. “She’s thriving. She just had her fifth birthday and started kindergarten this year.”