Williamstown resident Debbie Savigliano found peace in helping others through non-profit in memory of her late niece Bianca Yodice
Debbie Savigliano is no stranger to loss, but when her 21-year-old niece Bianca Yodice was struck and killed by a car while walking to work in August 2010, something changed within her. Savigliano said she fell into a deep, dark depression she struggled to climb out of, and it wasn’t until she was given a sign amid her grief that she saw a glimmer of hope — a whisper in her ear that would lead to granting the wishes of more than 20,000 children in need through the creation of her nonprofit Bianca’s Kids.
“I was at her wake and I had strategically sat myself so I could stare at her because I knew our time was limited. I heard something in my ear say, ‘you’re going to start a nonprofit,’” Savigliano said. “I thought I had totally lost my mind.”
When Savigliano noticed a burst of color in her peripheral vision, a mural made of all of the handprints from the children Yodice had worked with at an Edison daycare center, she heard the voice again tell her, “that’s going to be your logo.”
“I thought, ‘I’ve clearly gone off the deep end,’” Savigliano said. “I was on all of this medication to stay calm; I thought I was hearing things.”
It wasn’t until about a month later when Savigliano found her depression as the “depth abyss of blackness,” the thought of a nonprofit came back to her, a glint of hope and light she hadn’t felt in weeks.
“Sometimes it’s your hardest moments that will prompt you to create something, or a change in your life, that has probably always been meant to be, but wouldn’t have happened if you didn’t go through that difficult time,” Savigliano said. “You don’t see it then, but you reflect back and say, ‘oh, that’s what that was all about.’”
In honor of Yodice’s passion for children, specifically those with separation anxiety, Savigliano’s first project collected gifts for approximately 120 children in foster homes throughout the region through the Division of Youth and Family Services. It was then she knew she would start a foundation in Yodice’s memory, granting wishes for as many children as she could. By the second year, almost 1,200 children received gifts, and in the third year 1,500 foster children received gifts for Christmas.
“It was how I coped with my grief,” Savigliano said. “Those were the darkest days of my life, but with each child it filled the hole in my heart and I just never imagined, ever, that I could be in this position.”
Entering the organization’s eighth year, Bianca’s Kids serves children 18 years old and younger who are struggling due to physical, emotional or financial issues, and has granted wishes around the U.S. and the globe.
On Friday, Feb. 9, at the Beef and Beverage event supporting 15-year-old Dalton McKernan at the Star Cross Fire Hall, organized by local community service group Lead the Way, it was to be announced the organization will be granting McKernan’s wish of taking a Disney cruise with his family. McKernan was recently diagnosed with stage four Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and will be undergoing chemotherapy treatments for the next six months. According to Savigliano, the McKernan family will be flown to Florida and depart to the tropics in August once treatment is finished.
“Being able to grant this wish for Dalton and his family is pretty amazing, and it’s one of the bigger wishes we grant,” Savigliano said.
Additional wishes Bianca’s Kids has granted include providing medical equipment, such as specialty strollers, a track chair for a student with cerebral palsy and no use of his legs, financing a senior trip to Disney for a Williamstown High School senior with muscular dystrophy and in need of 24-hour care and more. Sometimes, Savigliano said, the wishes are simple, such as paying the cost of therapy for a child struggling with anxiety or depression, supplying an iPad for a child during long chemotherapy treatments or buying an American Girl Doll for a young girl whose parents can’t afford one. Last year, the organization donated $5,000 to Puerto Rico Children’s Hospital after the area was devastated by hurricanes and sent gifts to an additional 300–400 children in need.
“I want [the kids] to feel important, I don’t want them to feel pitied and I want them to feel they are so incredibly special that they were chosen by Bianca’s Kids to grant a wish for them,” Savigliano said. “You can see it in their faces; when we do it for a child that’s sick or emotionally struggling, or grief stricken, and you do something special for them and make a dream come true for them, you tap into heaven. It’s the most amazing feeling.”
For the past four years, the Philadelphia Eagles have invited Bianca’s Kids to bring up to 25 children and families to training camp in the summer, and each year the organization volunteers at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia to host Christmas in July and a Day of Joy. Also, Bianca’s Closets are located in various offices of DYFS throughout southern and central New Jersey, as well as numerous high schools throughout the state, providing prom dresses to all foster children who need a dress for free.
“There’s work we do to feed our families and then there is work we must do to feed our souls, and that’s what this is,” Savigliano said. “Once you do it, and you make a kid’s wish come true and you realize God put you in a position to do that, the payoff is incredible.”
Last year, Bianca’s Kids was chosen by the state Student Council Association and received approximately $105,000 in donations from high school student council groups from across the state. The organization has also been a top-rated nonprofit by GreatNonProfits.org in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.
“Bianca is my partner, and I said it to her when I started this, ‘clearly this is something you want, so I’ll do my work here and you do yours from there and we’ll be partners,’” Savigliano said. “I feel her every time we do something. I think we’ve helped more kids than she could have ever dreamed of in her lifetime, and because of her love for children, she would just be over the moon to see her name everywhere, and the kids so happy thanks to her.”
Wish requests must be submitted through the Bianca’s Kids wish application, found online at www.biancaskids.org. To see donation dollars at work, visit Bianca’s Kids on Facebook. Learn more about Bianca’s Kids and Savigliano’s journey through her book “From Grief to Gratitude: The Making of Bianca’s Kids,” recently transformed into a 30-minute documentary “From Grief to Gratitude,” which can be found on Fast Lane Productions’ YouTube site.