When Chicago resident Christina Nardella was battling breast cancer, she found she was able to forget about the stresses of her daunting diagnosis while enjoying live music with her husband and children.
As Nardella’s journey with cancer came to a close and she went into remission, she and her husband, Jeremy Schultz, sought a way to help people going through the same fight.
“As I was going through my journey there were a couple times where my kids and I, and my husband, went to go see our favorite band and we got lost in the music,” said Nardella. “It helped us forget about the stresses of our daily lives and what was next in terms of treatments. We’ve always been lovers of live music and concerts, so we decided to start Concerts for Cancer. The idea is hosting concerts or events to raise funds to offer people going through their cancer journeys a night out with a nice dinner, limo transportation, and an exclusive experience at a show.”
Just as the non-profit was gathering steam, the coronavirus pandemic went global, putting a temporary pause on concerts and live music. Nardella and Schultz turned instead to another experience that had helped them find peace — vacationing on St. John.
“My husband and I fell in love with St. John about 20 years ago and we’ve been coming there for years,” said Nardella. “It’s a place that we have found solace, and we’ve built some amazing relationships there. We really no longer vacation anywhere but St. John. During my journey, we were able to go to the island and I found it to be such an important part of my healing.”
An evening in December 2020 spent browsing Facebook presented Nardella and Schultz with their first opportunity to grant a cancer patient her wish of a final family vacation on St. John.
Lynette Denson posted an emotional, impassioned plea in a Facebook group seeking a seven-day trip to the island for her, husband Bryant Denson, daughter Kyla, and son Darius. Denson, suffering from stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, shared a video of herself explaining what she was hoping for.
“I am looking for a space to be able to take my family on, um … I don’t want to say our final trip, but I feel that I need to make this trip as soon as possible so that we have some good memories before I become immobile,” Denson said in her video. “I just want it to be special. We really need some time to be together.”
With a budget of just $3,000, she acknowledged that her request was a “hail mary,” and asked vacation rental owners who could work within her budget to contact her.
“Lyn was someone we immediately identified with,” said Nardella. “My husband and I looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, we can help here.’”
Schultz began reaching out to some of the friends the couple had made while vacationing on St. John, and soon the Concerts for Cancer non-profit had pieced together their first St. John Heals trip.
The Denson family of four was treated to a stay in January at J20, The Penthouse at Grande Bay Resort. They enjoyed meals courtesy of ZoZo’s and Lime Inn. Darius and Kyla named a sunset sail on Kekoa as their favorite part of the trip.
In a post-trip interview, posted on Concerts for Cancer Foundation’s YouTube channel, Denson shared with Nardella how special the trip was for her and her family.
“When we landed, the gratitude, the warmth, the air — I instantly started to feel better,” said Denson. “It was a physical change that my husband went through. The lines on his face relaxed, his shoulders came down, and he was just a different person. It’s such a blessing what you guys did for us.”
Four months after the memorable family vacation, Denson succumbed to her illness on May 5.
“We’ve heard from a lot of her friends and family who say, ‘You don’t know how important this was to them,’” said Nardella.
Concerts for Cancer has a second St. John trip in the works for another woman who’s currently in treatment for breast cancer. She and her family are scheduled for a visit in October, for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Financial and in-kind donations can be made for this trip at www.concertsforcancer.com.
As the world slowly returns to normal following the coronavirus pandemic, Nardella said she and her husband hope to continue their nonprofit with hybrid offerings.
“We’d love to be able to help more families with experiences like this,” she said. “Our thought is we’ll stick with concerts to help raise funds and awareness, and potentially also doing some grants for an evening away for families who can’t travel. We want to provide an opportunity for families to come together in a way that’s therapeutic and healing, to make those memories and build those experiences and hopefully forget about the stress of the journey, whether it’s for a week in St. John or a night out at a concert and dinner with their loved ones.”