Cancer won't keep Joey D from giving
Published: Wednesday, January 26, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 25, 2005 at 9:58 p.m.
Each Halloween, Joey DeLeonardo and his friends and family turn his yard in Bell into an extravaganza of creepiness: the creature from the black lagoon, Frankenstein and Count Dracula.
Joey D Benefit Party
DeLeonardo charges guests a $3 donation to get the bejeeezus scared out of them, and then every year on Nov. 1, he turns over the proceeds to the Gilchrist County Victim's Advocate office to help those who suffer domestic violence. Last year, he raised some $1,200.
This year, come hell or high water, he says he'll set up his haunted house again - even though he's been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, even though he's undergoing chemotherapy.
"I've had kids call me and ask, 'Are you still gonna set up the haunted house this year?' and I tell them, 'I will be on my deathbed and I will still do Halloween this year,' " says DeLeonardo, the father of five daughters ages 8 to 29. "And then we're gonna tear it down and build Santa's workshop."
DeLeonardo was diagnosed with cancer in December - "I got cancer for Christmas," he jokes - and underwent a 9¶-hour surgery that removed 20 lymph nodes and a tumor on the right side of his neck that he nicknamed Martin.
He has been on medical leave from his job as a sales associate at Home Depot in Gainesville and just underwent his second chemotherapy treatment. His cancer has spread to his lungs, intestines, liver and spleen.
"I didn't want one organ to feel left out, so I spread the wealth out a little bit," he quips.
As dire as that might sound, the doctor says his bloodwork is looking good, DeLeonardo says.
While DeLeonardo fights his disease, his friends, family and co-workers are intent on helping him through his battle. They've arranged a fund-raiser in his honor, the Joey D. Benefit Party, at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Unified Training Center in Gainesville.
The event features a home-cooked barbecue dinner, raffles, and dancing to Stranglehold, a classic rock band comprised of David Sesco, Keith Cramer, Bill Webb and Matt Maloney.
"I was thinking, 'God, I wish I could do something for this guy,' " recalls Sesco, DeLeonardo's friend and co-worker at Home Depot. "I thought, 'I've got a pretty decent band. We could probably put on a fund-raiser and raise a few hundred dollars for him.' Everyone has just jumped on it."
Sesco and his wife, Monica, have lined up many local businesses and individuals to donate items for the fund-raiser. On the flyer, under a photo of DeLeonardo's smiling face, is the text: "Does a lot of charity work; friendliest guy on the planet; helps everyone he meets; now it's his turn." That about sums things up.
"You've heard about the guy who will give you the shirt off his back?" asks DeLeonardo's friend, Tom Scribner. "That was written about him. He would do anything for anybody at any time, regardless of the consequences to himself."
Sesco speaks of his pal in the same glowing terms: "He always has a smile on his face, he's always positive. His heart is just as big as the world. He's much more than a fellow employee to me. He's like a brother. He's always helping people. Now it's our turn."
His friends at Home Depot are donating DeLeonardo their merit badge pay, holding food drives and putting on spaghetti lunches.
"Customers are calling me to see how I'm doing," DeLeonardo says. "I've been getting a ton of phone calls."
He gets teary-eyed when he talks about how people have come together to support him. "I really don't know what to do for those people," he says. "I can't give everyone a present like I want to."
DeLeonardo, 48, grew up in Manhattan. He moved to Florida at age 15 when his parents retired to Miami. He says his family members are all givers. They all volunteer heavily for children's charities. "It's just the way we are. If someone needs something, we do it," he says.
He served in the U.S. Navy from 1974 to 1976, and then lived in Egypt, where he worked out of Cairo as a flight attendant for Egypt Airlines for 12 years.
He moved onto family land in Bell 14 years ago, and soon afterward started working at Home Depot in Gainesville.
He says he likes the 45-minute commute to work. "It's peaceful," he says. That's what he loves about living in the country, too. No sirens. No noise. No traffic.
His daily commute gives him time to collect himself and change hats before coming home to his family, which includes Nicole, 8, who attends Bell Elementary, and Sandra, 12, and Karen, 13, who both go to Bell Middle School. His wife, Deborah DeLeonardo, works part-time as a newspaper carrier.
DeLeonardo's adult daughter, Melinda Cecile, and her daughter Jade, 1¶, both live in Gainesville, and another adult daughter, Dee Hyatt, lives in Pennsylavnia.
The first time DeLeonardo noticed anything amiss with his immune system was in late September, when a small tumor sprouted on his neck "overnight." Antibiotics did not slow its growth.
Over nine weeks, his doctors biopsied the tumor, which continued to test negative for cancer. Finally, they decided to remove it. That was when they discovered it was cancerous, says DeLeonardo.
Because non-Hodgkin's lymphoma responds well to chemotherapy, DeLeonardo says he got "the good kind of cancer."
As to losing his hair, not to worry. "Next year for Halloween I can wear a turtleneck and go as roll-on deodorant," he quips.
DeLeonardo is not the sort of guy to feel sorry for himself. He's been in three motorcycle accidents. He previously injured a kidney, broke both his legs, and now has two rods and eight screws stabilizing his back. He says his cancer is just one more thing to overcome.
"I'm gonna beat the hell out of this thing," he says. "If cars and motorcycles can't kill me, a little bug like this isn't going to kill me. It's a test. I take it in stride."
DeLeonardo has cycled through all the various departments at Home Depot. He loves working there. His goal is to return to work by July 5.
"I appreciate what everyone's done," he says. "I want to say 'stop,' but you can't say no, because it's coming from their hearts.
"One way or another, I'll pay them back."
To make a contribution to help Joey DeLeonardo defray costs by making your check payable to the Joe DeLeonardo Benefit Account and deposit it at any Florida Citizens Bank, or mail it to Florida Citizens Bank, 3919 W. Newberry Road, Gainesville, FL 32607.
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