Put on 'Smiles' for Tinley Park Girl Battling Nervous System Disorder

Sarah Panozzo has been battling neurofibromatosis most of her young life—but she's still smiling. Show your support for the youngest daughter of St. Damian Athletic Director Jim Panozzo Sunday, Oct. 16.

resident Jim Panozzo and his wife Joanne first became concerned about their daughter Sarah when she was 6 months old.

They noticed what seemed to be extra birthmarks on her neck, said Jim Panozzo, athletic director at . His wife Joanne, a pediatric nurse, worried about a different diagnosis.

Doctors confirmed her fears—Sarah has neurofibromatosis, a progressive disorder that causes tumors to form on nerves anywhere in the body at any time during an individual’s lifetime. The tumors can cause chronic pain, disfigurement, deafness, blindness and death. The disease is linked to many of the most common forms of cancer, brain tumors and learning disabilities.

At 6 months old, one tumor had grown on Sarah's optic nerve, causing blindness in one eye. She underwent her first chemotherapy session when she was 1. Doctors are currently monitoring a small growth in her cerebellum. Now in seventh grade, Sarah attends in Tinley Park, and 's Religious Education program.

Her family began planning benefits when Sarah was 2 years old.

"It was just great support for us," Jim Panozzo said. "And we wanted to do something more for the disease and Children's Memorial (Hospital)."

The benefit, to be held Sunday, includes a hike departing from the Central Park pavilion, 157th Street and Central Avenue. Registration begins at 9 a.m. and strollers and wagons are welcome. With Sarah graduating from eighth grade next year, Pannazo expects the benefit will change shape.

The fee is $15 per person or $40 per family in advance, or $20 per person and $45 per family on the day of the event.

In the 10 years of its existence, the fundraiser has generated more than $150,000 for NF research.

Proceeds from the event will help pay for research to find a cure for neurofibromatosis through the Children’s Memorial Hospital’s Brain Tumor Research Center.

"They're so great," Panozzo said, of the staff at Children's Memorial. "They're dealing with it daily. That keeps us going."

Many raffle prizes and silent auction items will be up for grabs Sunday, including Sox and Hawks tickets, Rodney Harrison signed football, a Paul Konerko signed bat, Denis Savard signed puck, upper-level suite tickets for Hawks games, Notre Dame tickets and a two-night stay in Door County.

Monetary donations can be sent to Smiles for Sarah Foundation Inc., c/o St. Damian Athletic Association, 5300 W. 155th St., Oak Forest, IL 60452. For more information, call 708-687-9846.

All proceeds to Children's Memorial Hospital and NF Midwest for research.

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