Category Archives: My faith

Life lessons….things I learned the hard way

Life lessons….things I learned the hard way

Sister sunflower

Before you begin reading these lessons…please know that this is how I attempt to live my life. I am not always successful with all of them, but I do try.

1.) Let your “NO” be no and your “YES” be yes.

If you commit to something, follow thru. Never change your plans because something better came along. People are counting on you. Be a person of strong commitment. This is one of the characteristics of being a responsible and dependable person.

2.) Never give a LOAN to anyone.

If someone comes to you with a request for money think long and hard. Pray about it. Is this going to help this person or do you need to consider “tough love”? Don’t be an enabler. However, if you see a true need and you are able to provide the funds requested, do so never expecting to get the money back. That way you will never build up resentment toward this person. Most of the time the money is not repaid, so approach it that way from the start and you will never be disappointed in anyone. Give it and forget it. Never share your generosity with anyone, except if you are married you should make these decisions jointly.

3.) Respect other peoples possessions as well as your own.

If you borrow something, return it in the same condition or better than when you received it. And return it promptly.

4.) Live your life as if each day is your last.

If you begin each day with thanks just for waking up and breathing, you will never be disappointed. Gratitude is a key factor in happiness. Do what you can within your personal limitations to make each day full. If you have a bucket list….get busy. You never know what tomorrow will bring.

5.) Tell the ones you love how much you love them.

If those around you don’t know how you much you care about them, tell them. This encourages love, respect and nothing but positive emotions. Oprah once said, “You want someone’s eyes to light up when you enter a room.” Be sure the ones you love KNOW this love. (With social media, even a text or a tweet can show you are thinking of someone.You don’t even have to speak to them.)

6.) Never forget your priorities.

God first, family second and the rest last. If you live your life with your priorities in proper alignment with your faith, you will have NO regrets. God will smile on you.

7.) Live a life of giving.

When you give, you are showing others God’s love for them. You are His hands. It needn’t be anything more than a smile. Give as much as you can and do service to others and you will reap rewards you never imagined.

8.) Love on older people.

I am sure you have heard it said, “Older people are just young people in wrinkly skin.” There brains are still back in their youth. Even if they forget things, they still are living and breathing as they did in years past. Show them respect and encourage them to share their life experiences with you. You might just learn something. Plus, it makes them feel they still have value, something to offer to this world.

9.) When you go to church go to honor God.

If you go to church only to have your faith nurtured you are going for the wrong reason. Go to give God one hour of your week in respect and gratitude for the many blessings He has given you. If you learn something from the homily along the way…..wonderful. Go out and practice what you learned.

10.) Only speak positive words.

If you surround yourself with positive people and speak positive words, you will have a happy and stress free life. The old saying.”If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” applies here. Who wants to be around a negative person? NOBODY.

11.) Look for the good in everyone and everything.

If you look for the good in every situation or every person, you will forget about the bad. There is a silver lining in every situation, and sometimes it is more difficult to find it than others. But it is there…as bleak as it may seem. I promise this is true.

12.) Always tell the truth.

I used to tell people things that I felt would make them fell better or what they wanted or expected to hear. Sometimes these things were far from the truth. (Rules 10 and 11 apply here.) It is always difficult to remember untruths. They will often turn into a chain of lies and then you are sunk. You probably can never remember it all. Stick to the truth and unless you have Alzheimer’s disease you will not fail.

13.) Teach your male children to always open the door for the ladies. Tell your female children to always act like a lady. Wear clothes that express your feminism not sexy.

They may not always be ladies, but he is always a gentleman. Tell your children to always be faithful. If they wish to spend time with someone else, break off the relationship. Be honest and fair and respectful of everyone.

14.) When children are introduced and a hand is offered make sure they look them straight in the eyes when shaking their hand.

15.) You get what you you get and you always say “Thank You”.

Enough said.

16.) Always pay your bets.

If you play games and monetary bets are made ALWAYS pay your bets. This is something you should learn early in life. Nobody wants to play with a person who justifies not paying up. And, even more importantly, don’t sit at the table without money in your pocket. It’s best not to gamble at all. But, these are rules that you should follow and in some crowds, it can be dangerous if you don’t honor the code!

17.) Teach your children about the commitment of marriage.

When they think they have found the person they want to share their life with you need to ask some hard questions. Did you pray about this person and did God give you a clear message they are the one He has chosen for you? Do you believe you can live your entire life with him/her? And, the final thing is, when you are married, you are married for life. But, if you find that you made a mistake in marrying him/her, be honest and fess up. Tell them immediately, seek help, and do not see another person until you are honest with your spouse and the marriage has been terminated. Be respectful of one another above all else. You married this person and believed you would love them forever. Find out why you don’t and fall in love all over again. Don’t wait until it is too late and things have been said that cause hearts to be torn apart.

18.) When you meet someone and you think they might “be the one” wait six months before you do anything drastic. It takes six months before the true self is shown.

19.) Don’t demand respect from your children…..earn it.

Enough said.

20.) Never throw your sibling in front of the bus.

The last two of my children were eleven months apart in age. When they were teens this came up. I wanted them to remain close throughout the teen years and into adulthood. While this is difficult for parents, it is wise. Ratting on your brother or sister causes them to lose trust in you. No trust….no deep relationship. Today, while they have strong opinions and voice them to each other, they remain very close. Nobody understands you like your sibling. The love between sisters and brothers is a deep and unending love. Don’t lose out on this blessing from God.

21.) You are only as good as your five best friends.

Do they make you a better person? Do they lift you up or tear you down? Do you want to be like them or do you sometimes justify why they hurt you or others? Choose wisely and embrace strong and nurturing friendships of those who share like values or those you would aspire to.

22.) Pray for God’s will, whatever it is, not for what you want….He already knows that.

The most important thing I can share with anyone is to pray for God’s will. It is the single most “freeing” rule I can give you. That is why I saved it for last.

If you pray for what YOU want, you will be disappointed. God doesn’t always work on your time schedule and He certainly doesn’t listen to your plan. He already has everything all worked out. He already has a plan for you. He WILL give you your hearts desire. I promise it will be bigger, better, more loving and more dependable than YOUR plan ever could be. I am the living breathing truth of this.

If God had answered some of my prayers, I would not be what I am today, where I am today and probably not half as happy and loved as I am today.

As Garth Brooks puts it. “Thank God….for unanswered prayers…”

Where does a dream come from?

Where does a dream come from?

When a dream becomes a reality it is a humbling experience. Today I feel as if I am floating on a cloud of gratitude. For a year and a half we have built a pyramid stone by stone beginning with a meeting of minds to discuss an idea. We lured them to our home with a promise of pizzas from the wood burning oven, craft beer on draft and plenty of cabernet to get the conversations going. What resulted was far more than we could have ever imagined.

Tommy had always wanted to throw a golf tournament on the golf course that we have viewed every morning for over twenty four years and one of the most famous in professional golf, the TPC Stadium course at Sawgrass. With each think tank meeting a team was forged. Ideas came from everyone, contacts were contacted and the event began to take form. We set up a meeting with the appropriate TPC staff and received their blessing. We asked our long time friend if he would want to join us once again. He gave a positive response with no hesitation. Our legal expert and a JTTF board member set out to form the Funk-Zitiello Foundation a new non profit, our JTTF marketing team began to work on the creative for the event. A web site was developed and social media began to promulgate. A team of over 80 volunteers was assembled. We were on our way to organizing a first class event at a first class venue.

However, before I go any further there is an element of the process that must be revealed.

Where does a dream begin? How is it born and how does it grow like ripples on the water? This dream came from a place deep within Tommy and I. We believe that God tugged gently at our hearts. We know He is the reason for our team, for our creative and crazy plans and for success beyond our wildest imagination. But, then it became not just our dream, it became the quest for others who heard about it. We believe it was all God’s plan.

When we look back over time we can see His work behind the scenes. Not just the past few years, but for our entire lives. Why did we move to this place we call heaven on earth all those many years ago? Why was it the next home being built belonged to a striving pro golfer? Was all of this by chance? How about that hard working golfer pulling off a win at potentially the fifth major golf tournament on the PGA Tour calendar and it happened just months after a young high school senior suffered a near fatal spinal cord injury on the football field. How did he meet JT Townsend? How did Fred and Sharon Funk and his band of golf fans, the Funk’s Punks join together to rally a community to build that young man a home so his family could live under one roof? How did I survive a cancer that is statistically a death sentence within one year? You just can’t make this stuff up. God was and is always in control. And, His plans are perfect.

It was not an easy task putting this event together. It took a team and it took a lot of work and worry and so many conversations I can’t begin to count them. But, in another way it was simple really. All we had to do was tell our story. Those who have been touched by something so raw and devastating were caught hook, line and sinker, many had been touched by pancreas cancer or had seen the work of JT Townsend and his foundation helping others who found themselves in the same position as he was, disabled and with no hope of getting the things they needed.

When we began we had a budget that I felt was aggressive and maybe unattainable. But, I knew we had to make everyone on our team understand what we wanted to achieve. Just a few weeks before the event we were not even close to our number and I heard discouragement in Tommy’s voice. I assured him, this was not OUR event, the perfect people would be there and the perfect number would be achieved. We just needed to have faith and keep putting one foot in front of another. And we did by achieving not only that lofty budget, but going over it by almost twenty percent.

We were also concerned about holding the event during the rainy season in North Florida. The showers had appeared each day for a month, a nice drenching rain to water the flowers and keep the hot days humid and sustain our natural beauty. But, rain could potentially shut down an outdoor event. Again, I turned to my faith and declared the day would be perfect because this is His event not ours. And, it was a perfect morning with not a cloud in the sky as the JT Townsend Gospel Choir sang praises on the hill overlooking the golfers as they warmed up on the driving range.

The JT Townsend Memorial Gospel Choir

But, there was one more God wink that probably came from our beloved JT at near conclusion of the golf tournament. Fred Funk, who had never hit a hole-in-one on TPC Stadium Course’s most photographed and feared hole #17 did just that. Not only did he do it that day, he did it right when Tommy, his son and his father and his best friend were on the tee, a group of diehard golf fans who as Funk’s Punks had followed Fred for twenty five years of his career. Everyone could hear the cheers throughout the course and knew something wonderful had happened. And it did.

What has been confirmed to me is that when God is involved we just need to listen for his next instruction. We need to place our complete faith in Him and allow each piece to fall into place. He will never disappoint.

What is your dream waiting to come true? Do you possess the faith you need to make it a reality?

The crowd erupts as Fred hits a hole in one

“With God all things are possible” Mark 10:27

Judi Zitiello, Sunshine, Carmen Townsend, Tommy Zitiello, Precious Townsend

The sponsors who made this event possible. Thank you all

The olive branch

The olive branch

My sweet Joseph and I feel as if God showers us with His blessings with these amazing little gifts He sends called babies. Two of our boys had blessed us with five special angels. We loved watching them grow and develop into little humans with individual traits that distinguished them from one another. Slowly time slipped past us and they were no longer infants or toddlers. We missed that innocent stage where each new discovery was met with awe and increased curiosity. While we watch with amazement at their accomplishments in sports and academics and social skills and see their faith life growing we are thankful and proud. He continued to gift us as we watched them grow.

Suddenly our younger children began to marry and we knew it wouldn’t be long before they would experience what true love really is all about. Since 2014 God has sent us three love gifts, and our hearts are exploding as we watch with eager anticipation each small development, a grin, a smile, a belly laugh or the moment when their eyes connect with ours. It is all so surreal. We count these days as some of the happiest of our lives. Days that transform our lives. Days that will bring us through the difficult days.

These tiny infants, completely dependent upon their Mother and Father for food, warmth and love have stolen our hearts and teach us once again that life is precious and fleeting and so very special a true gift.

January 1st we were blessed again with Olive Adelle Zitiello, weighing just 6 lbs. 9 oz. and 20 inches long. Finally a pink bundle to dress in soft pink and bows. We are thrilled beyond belief, every one of us.

She came quickly and naturally and perfectly formed..thank you Jesus.

Her name held great significance. Adelle is Tommy’s Mothers legal name and beautiful. She was the greatest Mother, Grandmother. We are so pleased Olive’s parents decided to honor her in this way.

We realized shortly after we heard it, her first name Olive evolved from early planning of Louis and Emily’s wedding. The theme was chosen by Emily – Olive branches, simple and full of meaning. The leaf signifies the truth of faith and it’s fruit, the olive is the good of charity. From Emily’s shower to Louis and Emily’s wedding the olive branch was used to decorate the wedding cake, the tables and even the crown on our brides head. It was a single 5 letter word that held great significance for these two parents. Emily’s push present from her husband, a delicate Tiffany olive branch necklace. But, the true gift was this little pink soft being…Olive Adelle Zitiello.

A Mother’s love

The family began to pour into the maternity ward to meet the newest member. We gathered to share our thanks and wonder at the miracle of birth.

Little Jude was amazed when he saw Olive for the first time.

We had told Jude for many months that baby Olive was in Emily’s belly. Now he could see her.

Joseph and I have realized how fleeting life truly is. This is what age does for us. We know that God sends us these miraculous gifts to perpetuate our existence here on earth. We are blessed beyond our belief and truly thankful.

A peace that surpasses all understanding….Phil 4:7

A peace that surpasses all understanding….Phil 4:7

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I can smell the aroma of fresh brewed coffee as I anticipate the fade of the percolators pumping sound. Pouring the cold, sweet creamer into the cup then lifting the heavy pot, I fill the cup to the brim with dark, rich coffee. I take a taste and return to the kitchen table where my bible lays open, a vanilla scented candle burns next to the workbook. It is my quiet time. The only sounds of the house are the whirl of the refrigerator. It is my special time with my creator.Time when I can focus on His teachings. I am completely rested and at peace and eager to get to today’s lesson.

Since 1996 I have been involved in small group bible studies and prayer coffees. The impact on my life is extremely recognizable to all who knew me BC….yes, before Christ, they might say I am a different person. And, yes, I am a new creation in Christ.

I thought I had Christ in my life from the time I was a small child. And, He did dwell within me, but He was certainly not the one I gave credit, consulted or loved beyond any human love I now describe. It took the prompting of author Wilma Stanchfield, “Struck by Lightening – Then by Love” who came to speak at a Christian Women’s Club luncheon I attended with a neighbor.

At her prompting after hearing her powerful testimony, I bowed my head and tearfully repeated the prayer of salvation. That day, I drew a line in the sand, I promised to put Jesus Christ in control of my life. A strange feeling of peace washed over me that very moment and has remained with me every moment since.

Early on the women’s club invited me to host a prayer coffee. The ladies gathered at my home for a slice of quiche, some sweet rolls and coffee. We sat in a circle in the living room and some of the ladies asked if we would pray for specific things. When we began one of the ladies opened with a prayer, “We know that when two or more are gathered in your name you are with us Lord…” One lady asked for us to pray for a family member who was facing a difficult surgery, or a daughter expecting a baby after a miscarriage, for salvation for a brother who was on drugs. It was all really remarkable. The prayers from these ladies were the most comforting prayers I had ever heard. The words seemed to drift from their lips like feathers. I felt warm inside and could envision a circle of angels surrounding us and I felt I was truly in God’s presence.

As months passed I joined a bible study group. I didn’t know my way around a bible very well. As Catholics, we never really read the Bible. We would hear the gospel each mass and the priest would give a homily he had prepared surrounding the message. But, I was not familiar with the book itself.
I went to the Christian bookstore and searched the shelves for a bible some of the ladies recommended, a Life Application Study Bible. I also purchased tabs for each book of the bible to make it easier to locate each book and scripture during our study. I would highlight the scriptures we discussed and loved that the notes at the bottom of each page explained what the verses meant in lay terms.

There were some rules that were explained at the beginning of a new six week study. We needed to arrive promptly and let the hostess know if we were unable to attend. We were encouraged to invite others to luncheon so they could learn about our group and hopefully receive the blessing of salvation. We were told never to share anything discussed personally outside of the room. A bond of confidence was critical so everyone would be comfortable sharing life experiences.

We learned first hand that not making each other feel guilty when we couldn’t attend was a huge reason the girls continued to participate. And, that a persons individual religious doctrine was not important so long as we stood on the word of the Lord. As we closed in prayer each week we asked God to place a name of a friend or neighbor on our hearts that He would want to join our group.

We found that everyone had a story about how they came to know the Lord. I realized my story was not so bad after all and that forgiveness begins with ourselves. If God forgives us, we surely need to be able to forgive ourselves too.

It wasn’t long before I was hosting bible study at my home. The group would enjoy my passion for cooking as I prepared a morning meal for the ladies and prepared cappuccinos and tea at their request during the half hour of fellowship before we moved to the living room for discussion of last week homework and a video presentation.

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Word spread throughout our neighborhood and our group began to grow. The ladies I least expected to join us were suddenly at our front door. We grew closer and closer to one another as we shared our life trials and blessings. And, we grew closer and closer to Jesus as we began to understand His promises through studying the stories and the amazing men and women of the bible, people just like us, flawed and human.
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It was a wonderful time of sharing, learning and caring. The diversity of age and religion was a blessing too. We were able to draw from Godly women who had been studying the bible most of their lives. They shared solutions to difficult situations in relationships they had experienced. It was very enlightening and felt good to receive sound counsel.

I credit these Godly women with leading me to a personal relationship with Christ, I doubt I would be the person I am today had I not joined that club so many years ago.

Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. Matthew 7:7

Whoever is a believer in Christ is a new creation.The old way of living has disappeared. A new way of living has come into existence. 2 Corinthians 5:17.

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“Trouble, trouble, trouble….Sometimes I swear it feels like this worry is my only friend”

“Trouble, trouble, trouble….Sometimes I swear it feels like this worry is my only friend”
ServPro So Jacksonville and Arlington golf event to benefit Champions for Hope

ServPro So Jacksonville and Arlington golf event to benefit Champions for Hope

Apprehension is building to the date of that dreaded scan.The March and June scans revealed spots on my lungs that my oncologist, Dr. Johnson said the chance of a reoccurrence of my pancreatic cancer could be 3 or 4 on a scale of 1-10.

With my husband out of town our daughter Lindsay and her baby boys joined me the entire day at Mayo in June as I checked off my schedule of appointments. 8AM blood work on the chemotherapy floor, because they know how to access my port without pain. 12:30 drink the contrast liquid down about 1/2 an hour before the 5 minute CT scan. Then afternoon appointments, allowing for the radiology department to read the scans and write their findings then meeting with my oncologist who will review the labs and CT scan report and give us the results. Then another appointment with my Radiology-oncologist for his take on the reports. They attempt to schedule both docs appointments back to back so there is no waiting for that thumbs up from everyone and we can get on with our lives, at least for three more months anyway.

That is how we live our lives in this family, at three month intervals.

According to the doctor those 3 or 4 or more “lit up” nodules grew in size from March to June, but remained under 1cm and too small to go thru the pain of collapsing my lung to biopsy them. I had a case of pneumonia early in spring. Could that have had anything to do with this I asked? My radiology oncologist was more positive than the oncologist. He said it could be lung cancer, which would be better for me than a metastatic pancreatic cancer.

Lindsay quipped on the way home in the car, “Here we are praying it is lung cancer. Something just seems wrong about that.”

Jaguars "Meet me on the 50"  night.

Jaguars “Meet me on the 50” night.

My amazing husband planned fun trips for us during the three months. One week in Cleveland to visit family and catch the Cavs’ Championship ring ceremony. That turned in to game two of the World Series with the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Cubs. What at week. Then we had baby showers and Jacksonville Jags games and of course my work with both foundations. They would keep me as busy as possible so I could not have time to think about the grey cloud that was hovering just above me.

The LAND.....Cleveland ROCKS

The LAND…..Cleveland ROCKS

Purple Stride – Jacksonville Beach….

The D'Errico's turn out in full support of Jude's Dude's Purple Stride 2016

The D’Errico’s turn out in full support of Jude’s Dude’s Purple Stride 2016

Oh, and then hurricane Matthew and an evacuation!

Hurricane Matthew - evacuation to Poppas warehouse. 12 adults and 9 dogs....fun fun fun

Hurricane Matthew – evacuation to Poppas warehouse. 12 adults and 9 dogs….fun fun fun

Not much time to think about possibilities. There is no reason to worry, God is in control. I know that He has much work for me to do. I believe He has given me this time to help others with raising awareness of this lethal cancer that tries to steal life, laughter and love from it’s next target. But, not today PC. Today I am thankful for my cancer. We have a new outlook on everything thanks to this diagnosis, surgery and treatment. Our family has grown closer, we hug friends a little tighter, we look at the world thru our God eyes recognizing His “winks” along the way. And, we see His hand in preparing us for this time going back years to careers, friendships and moves. He had a plan all along. And, we have no idea when that plan will end, not one of us. So, I am grateful for each day, each person in my life and each breath. I hope when I am face to face with Him, I can look directly into those gentle eyes and say, “I did my best.”

Champions for Hope

Champions for Hope

Judi and JT graduation copy

On a warm June day as I stood at the UNF Arena podium before approximately twelve hundred mourners, I felt a strange peace come over me. I had prayed I could get through the eulogy of a man who changed my life and the lives of my family. A man I love dearly. A man who had shown me my purpose.

At that time I felt my purpose was to carry on his legacy of fulfilling the mission of a foundation we built together by helping people who had been in his very situation, broken and afraid. On that day I could never imagine how that defining moment would explode into yet another purpose even more personal than this.

Just ten months later my husband and I sat on the sofa of my new doctors office. I had always been very healthy. Recently what I wrote off as advancing age; knees clicking, meniscus tears, indigestion all started creeping up on me. Years of walking, body sculpting classes, treadmills and ellipticals pounding my medium sized frame were starting to reveal a truth…I was aging. Confident the doctor would concur with our diagnosis, we smiled when she entered the room and asked me to take a seat on the examining table. She was pretty, about thirty something, so accomplished for her age. But her demeanor was serious. She began to explain the results of the sonogram she had ordered the day before as she turned to her computer screen she pointed to something in the middle of my torso. “You have a mass in the head of your pancreas.” she said. Tom jumped from the sofa to sit on the table beside me. “Your blood work and symptoms reveal it could be pancreatic cancer.” A tear trickled down her cheek as she stoically shared her findings leading to this conclusion. My immediate response, “Can you live without your pancreas?” I was unaware of what the pancreas did. Tom held me tightly as she explained, “Yes,you can, but you would live on insulin for the rest of your life.” She had made an appointment with a surgeon at the Mayo Clinic for the next day. We left her office in utter shock.

The rest of the week was filled with MRI’s, more blood work, conversations with our surgical team, visits to church and meetings with immediate family. I was on a fast decline. Just 11 days after my initial appointment I was on the operating table for a 9 and 1/2 hour Whipple surgery by one of the best pancreatic cancer surgeons in the world.

My treatment and recovery took more than one year. To this day I am affected by the resection of my entire digestive system. Chemo and radiation have turned my stomach muscles to mush as well as deterioration of my bones. I recently underwent 2 and 1/2 hour surgery to repair hernias that developed where drains and other incisions had been required.

But, I am here 26 months at this writing cancer free from a lethal cancer that has a less than 8% survival rate of five years. I am a miracle.

To endure a day like October 8th, 2004 for JT, the date of his near fatal spinal cord injury and April 29th, 2014, the date of my diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, is something I would not wish upon anyone.
But, a friend told me one day I would look back on this trial as a blessing. And, that has proven to be true.

That blessing is the revelation of purpose. To move forward with each day that God blesses us with. To take that most difficult situation and turn it into good. To show others that through faith you can conquer anything. Be the example, make others see the hope you glean from a relationship with the only one who truly matters, our savior Jesus Christ.

What was hope for JT? That he would walk again? That he would be able to play football again? That he would hold his wife and baby one day. Only JT knows the true answer to that question. But, he never questioned “why me”. He moved forward each day with a smile and purpose to use his life experience to help others.

What is hope for me? That I will survive this death sentence? That cancer will not steal me from the ones I love too soon? Deep in my soul I promise you I am fine with death. But, I am hopeful that others will see my peace and they will reach deep down too and use each and every day to fight to give others hope.

JT and I have a mutual friend, a friend who we love and loves us both right back. The 2005 Players Champion – pro golfer Fred Funk and his wife and children joined forces with my husband, rock and best friend Tommy Zitiello, to create an event that will be like none other. An event to be held on one of the most prestigious golf courses in the country, The Champions for Hope Golf Classic.

The inaugural Champions for Hope golf classic presented by the Funk-Zitiello Foundation, Inc. (501C3 IRS designation applied for) will be held Friday, June 16th,2017, Father’s Day weekend, a gala, concert and auction at the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse. Golf will commence on Saturday, June 17th on the famed Stadium course. There will be 25 foursomes and a fifth celebrity. The proceeds from this event will be paid to two First Coast causes, The JT Townsend Foundation, Inc. and to fund a grant to research pancreatic cancer.

We intend for this event to grow annually, to give hope to the families of those affected by both of these causes and in years to come other worthy causes.

To find out how you can become a champion for hope send your inquiry to info@championsforhopegolf.com.

God bless everyone, individuals and sponsors who have stepped up to join our team of champions for hope to help benefit these two deserving causes.

Champions for HOpe logo copy

And we all lived happily ever after…

And we all lived happily ever after…

It is wonderful to feel healthy and happy and ever-so-busy. Trips, weddings, baby AND bridal showers, parties, dinners have all kept me running and focused on “life” rather than Pancreatic Cancer. To date Tom and I have weathered four CT scans.(All cancer free by the way!) With each passing month after chemo and radiation I am feeling stronger and back to normal. Well, the “normal” one feels after Whipple surgery. I truly feel like one of God’s miracles. And I thank Him for each new day.

In July Tom blessed me with my dream of taking our family to Italy. We packed up 13 together and headed to Milan and on to Lake Como. What a fun filled and action packed week we had. When I was at my weakest point, Tom asked me what I wanted to do in my life. I told him I wanted to take our family to Italy. He responded…”DONE”. In January we began to plan our trip. We decided Lake Como would be our home base. We rented a villa on the lake in a small village called Vassena.

Lake Como

During the holidays of 2014, our son Louis asked his love to be his wife. We were all thrilled that Louis had finally found the person he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. Emily is a wonderful girl with an amazing work ethic. She is constantly taking classes to better herself. She had a great job at Mayo Clinic in the research department, but that was not enough. She enrolled in nursing classes and graduated in record time. We were so happy with his choice and the wedding plans began. they could not decide on when or where. I said,”We are traveling to the most romantic place in the whole wide world…why not get married there.” They thought the idea was great and we contacted a wedding planner in Milan to help us with the process.

Passports needed to be applied for, special dresses, train tickets, tickets to the Vatican, tour guides, hotel in Rome….it all had to be planned for 13 Zitiello’s. (Well, 3 Garrity’s, Lindsay’s little family.) Plus, papers needed to be completed and submitted to our church and the church in Italy to make the marriage officially accepted by our Church and legal in the US. But, we had plenty of help. Everyone was so excited. It made Tom and I feel so good to be able to include everyone on this trip of a lifetime. Oh,and we would throw a wedding in on top of it!

13 Zitiellos  at the Airport - Check

13 Zitiellos
at the Airport – Check

On July 10th we all met at JAX airport and headed off on our family adventure. Emily’s parents had left a month before the wedding to visit Europe with plans to end up at Lake Como for the wedding. We flew to JFK in NYC and had a few hours to kill before our flight to Milan. We spent our time in lounges in the airport in excited anticipation.

Finally we were off. Tom had purchased first class tickets for he and I and the kids had upgraded to bulk-head seats for more room. We were off.

I must admit I was a bit nervous about traveling so far from my Mayo docs and wondered how my body would react to the hours on the plane, new food and just everything. Could I keep up with the walking? But, I seemed to have supernatural strength.

We were all wondering how little 14 month old Jude would handle the long flight. We had plenty of hands to help. At one point, Lindsay brought Jude up to first class and attempted to get him to sleep. He wasn’t having it. So back to coach he went.He did eventually sleep and so did Mom and Dad.

We arrived in Milan in the morning on Saturday and a 16 passenger air conditioned bus complete with toddler seat awaited us. Our driver whisked us off and in less than two hours we arrived at our Villa. The twisting narrow roads were daunting and we were happy we had cancelled two mini-vans and hired a driver. We could never had navigated the mountain roads.

When we arrived at the address of our villa, two iron gates began to open and we turned into a stone courtyard with two stone buildings. From out of two wooden doors came the owner of the villa…Guiseppe’, greeting us with a huge smile and big hugs. (That’s what I love about Italians, there are no simple handshakes. You are always greeted with a kiss on both sides of your face and a big hug.)

The grounds were spectacular. 28,000 square feet of garden and two beautiful villas right on Lake Como, the main house and a cottage that had recently been added. The family spent the next hour exploring the villa and the lake and choosing where they would be sleeping. Scott, Blake and two of the kids decided they wanted the cottage. The rest of us found our rooms in the main villa. The floors were all stone and the walls were plaster with lots of dark wooden trim. Both places could accommodate 18 comfortably. The kitchen was fully stocked with our prearranged list of groceries. Fresh local fruit and vegetables, cheeses, salami, pastries, beer, wine, water and the coupe de gras’ crusty artesian breads.

We changed our clothes quickly and piled back into the bus that would take us on a ten minute ride to Bellagio where we would lunch on authentic Italian cuisine…antipasti, pizza, beer (Peroni) and wine (local vineyards). We ate in an outdoor cafe right on Lake Como at the Bellagio marina. It was spectacular. There were lovely shops along the main road. Smart little shops lined the grass and cobblestone steps that climbed the mountain. I was sure I had died and gone to heaven. (This would not be the only time I had that thought during the trip.)

Dinner at Ristorante Silvio

Dinner at Ristorante Silvio

We walked Bellagio for the rest of the afternoon and returned to our villa to change for dinner. Tonight we would eat at Ristorante Silvio with spectacular seafood and breathtaking views of the Alps and the lake.

Cooling down in Lake Como

Cooling down in Lake Como

Sunday was a day of rest. We awoke to the sound of the church bells ringing just steps from our villa. The gentle sound resonated over the water. The bells sounded every hour and were a beautiful reminder that our Lord and Savior was with us.

We had arranged to have a chef prepare dinner for us in our garden on Sunday night. We needed to be in bed early as we had our bus picking us up at 4AM for our drive to Milan train station where we would embark on our train ride to Rome.

We spent the day swimming, sunning and canoeing Lake Como from our own beach and boat house.
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It was refreshing to swim in the cold water. The temperatures at Lake Como in July were unseasonably warm. We averaged 85 every day but 70′ at night. The villas were not equipped with AC except for two small window units. We agreed Lindsay, Matt and the baby should take advantage of that so Jude would sleep. While in the lake and sitting on our deck we gazed upon the Swiss Alps across the lake. What looked like miniature trains noodled their way thru tunnels along the mountainside. It was amazing. While it appeared close, the boys attempted to boat to the other side. They made it half way and returned. It was much farther than it appeared.
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We ended our day with a wonderful dinner served al fresco in our peaceful garden by an amazing chef and his helpers. The food was traditional, veal and pasta, wine great bread and a fabulous dessert. The cool evening air was refreshing and we were in bed early anticipating our trip to Rome in the morning.

A battle and a blessing

A battle and a blessing
Mayo Clinic Jacksonville - March 28th, 2016 Hernia repair Surgery Dr. Asbun

Mayo Clinic Jacksonville – March 28th, 2016 Hernia repair Surgery Dr. Asbun

Am I battling for my life? Is the enemy surrounding me and do I have weapons that I raise to fight?

This week I read an article written by Kate Granger who has cancer who claimed cancer is not a fight. She said, in her view “the cancer seems to revolve around wartime rhetoric: battle, fight, warrior, beat.” She found these words uncomfortable and frustrating to hear.

“I would like to be remembered for the positive impact I have made on the world, for fun times and for my relationships with others, not as a loser. When I do die, I will have defied the prognosis for my type of cancer and achieved a great deal with my life. I do not want to feel a failure about something beyond my control. I refuse to believe my death will be because I didn’t battle hard enough.”, she wrote.

Please don’t think I challenge her personal opinion. In fact, I found it to be an interesting point of view. It got me to do some serious thinking about my perspective. Would I be offended if someone uttered “she lost her brave fight” once that I have passed on?

Not at all.

Another writer, Rebecca Hamilton wrote she felt “like someone who has wintered over at the South Pole and is now peeking from behind doors at the newcomers who’ve arrived with the sun….I been fighting for my life, just as surely as any gladiator in an arena, any soldier in battle. I have been, like they are, on strange soil, someone else’s territory, guarding my back as well as my front as I sought purchase on the shaky ground under my feet, as I fought to find the way out of the nightmare.”

Rebecca resented the word “survivor” at first. “After all, no one “survives” cancer, at least not with surety. It can come back at any time and when it does, chances are that it will come back meaner and more advanced than the last time we saw it.”

Now she understands the word survivor differently.”I feel like a survivor, but of a decidedly unheroic, uncertain and battered sort. I am not the heroine, striding over the top of a hill to claim my victory crown. I am rather a shipwreck victim, washed up on a beach, half conscious and too exhausted to lift her face out of the sand.”

I felt that was a perfect analogy. I could relate to that person lying weak on the sandy beach after washing ashore. Fighting to stay atop the water, treading till I feared I would give up. That is what it feels like to endure surgery, infections, drains, chemotherapy and radiation. Yet, I made it to shore. I didn’t give up. I didn’t succumb to the waves or the cold or the uncertainty of my fate.

I won that battle. I am victorious. But it is only temporary.

I lift my mug each morning and take a sip of my creamy hot joe watching the sun rise. Assessing how I am feeling, I think to myself as Rebecca thinks….”Today I feel good….Today is not the day I am going to die.” I have TODAY.

Surviving with strong faith has been my victory. Will I win the battle over cancer? Statistically not. Regardless of where the cancer moves next my death certificate will read…”Cause of Death…Pancreatic Cancer.” But, I will fight a good fight. I will battle forward.

Everyday I am blessed to live I will pray for God to grace me with time to see my children and my grandchildren thrive.

” The same cancer ordeal that has ravaged your body can put you in a place so close to God that you can feel His presence every moment….You can feel the everlasting arms around you and know that you are loved, cherished and protected there forever.” says Rebecca. (Oh is she ever right about that.) “You don’t have to do anything except trust. Just let God love you through this and you will wash up on that shore, battered and ravaged physically, but stronger than you have ever been spiritually.”

I pray people will remember how they saw Jesus thru me. He surely lives in me. I am so thankful for the faith that brings me through this battle. There are so many that do not believe and I cannot imagine how they must suffer. I might not win the battle with cancer….but I have deepened my faith and the faith of my family and those close to me. For that I am thankful.

Cancer is a battle but more importantly it has turned out to be a blessing.

Will I be here for……

Will I be here for……
Jude's Main Dude

Jude’s Main Dude

The local greeting card store was not busy as I entered. It was time to buy some cards for the late fall birthdays approaching. The owner, recognizing me as a frequent customer, smiled at me and said “hello”. I nodded and kept walking toward the birthday section.

Should I buy just one card for my daughter and my sons? Or, should I buy several, sign them and put them away? I could tell them what I would want them to know, some tidbit of wisdom I had gathered from years of experience fitting for that time of life. This seemed like a great idea…until I started to read the cards.

After choosing a beautiful card for my daughter, I began to read the text, my eyes filled up with tears. This was going to be far more difficult than I had expected. The idea was loosing its appeal.

Suddenly, the store manager was approaching asking if she could help me find what I was looking for. She noticed my tears and sweetly asked if I was okay.

I had been strong for so long in front of my family and friends about this cancer thing. Suddenly the flood gates had opened and this poor lady stood before me.

One of the reasons I loved this store was because the owner and most of the sales ladies were Christians. They were so loving and kind and always sure to say “have a blessed day” as you left.

I figured the owner deserved some sort of explanation. I certainly couldn’t lie. So, out it came. “I am battling pancreatic cancer and I am not sure how long I will be around, so I was thinking of buying cards, signing them and putting them away.” Like and angel sent from God, she wrapped her arms around me and cried softly with me.

Then she began to pray over me. It was so comforting. We stood there in the birthday aisle for several minutes, until I had collected myself. I told her this might not be the right time to do this. She agreed. “Give it some more thought and you will know when you are ready.”

18 months have passed since my diagnosis, surgery, treatment, and 4 clear CT scans. I am currently cancer free. The PC statistics are not in my favor, but, I am feeling great and positive about the near future.

One thing I do know for certain, I am thankful I trust a God who loves me and protects me and sends His angels to hold me up when I need it, even a clerk in the greeting card store.

Purple Stride – 2015

Purple Stride – 2015
Delivering my speech before Purple Stride race begins.

Delivering my speech before Purple Stride race begins.

In June, 2010 I went to cooking school in the foothills of the Appenines just south of Florence, Italy with a good foodie friend, Kelly who is here today. We prepared our meals in a 300 year-old stone barn that had been renovated into a rustic kitchen. I learned to prepare tasty meals with limited organic ingredients. I fell in love with Italy, Italian cuisine and my teacher Chef Laura. So much so that I returned with 4 more of my friends in 2012.

In April 2014, when I lost my inspiration to cook, my appetite and my yearning for a great full-bodied cabernet, I knew something wasn’t right.

Mayo Clinic Docs found a mass in my pancreas and surgery was scheduled two weeks later.

Our sixth grandchild was presented by our only daughter and her husband a week before my surgery. They named him “Jude”. This was the single most important honor that has ever been given me.

I underwent 9 and ½ hour Whipple surgery by my hero Dr. Horcio Asbun. The human I credit with saving my life.

Many of you here today know first hand what that surgery entails. I lived thru the recovery, a serious infection, the chemo and the radio chemotherapy taking my final treatment Christmas Eve.

I stand here today 16 months cancer free.

What I do want to share with you is what my husband, my family and friends learned from our trial.

Tom, whom I now call Joseph, who led our family thru this dessert- and I leaned that God is in control .We agreed to say “Yes” to anyone who offered help. People want to help. They don’t know what to say or what to do or how they can help…but …if you answer “yes’ you will see the love of God thru them. They are His hands helping you and loving you. You are blessed and they will be too by making a meal, changing your bed, rubbing cream on your feet and hands. I felt God’s love in every action and our family did too.

When I was at my weakest point, Joseph, (Tom) asked me what I wanted to do in my life, what I dreamed of. I told him it was to take our family to Italy. He said “DONE”.
In July we flew 13 family members, our children and grandchildren to Milan. We took them on a tour of the Vatican and Rome. We rented a house on Lake Como and threw a wedding for our son and his bride in a small Catholic Church on that beautiful lake.

God winked at me that week. While I was walking 60 meters from the boat ramp to our rental home on a stretch of narrow road, my Chef Laura from cooking school saw me as she was driving from Milan to Billagio at that very moment. She stopped, came to our home, met my family and shared an hour with us.

Quite frankly, I never dreamed I would see Laura again. I believe God made that happen.

Laura Giusti, my Chef and my friend.

Laura Giusti, my Chef and my friend.

This disease is a beast. We all have an expiration date. Those with PC realize that date could be sooner than later. The vulnerability permeates to your family and friends. It shows them that each family member is a treasure, friend is a blessing, each moment of every day is a gift.

If you or your loved one has PC, remember this. God is in control. He loves every one of us. Put your faith in Him and give your worries and your fears up to Him. He will lift that burden from your shoulders and show you His love.

Todays walk will raise awareness of this dreadful cancer and increase research funding so that early detection stops the growth of this disease and doesn’t let it gain status of becoming the #1 cancer killer within the next five years.

NEGU and give your fear and your family up to God. He will bless you beyond your belief.

Thank you for being here today to walk by our side in this battle.

The walk was exhausting for little baby Jude

The walk was exhausting for little baby Jude