According to American Cancer Society estimates, in 2018 alone there were around "1,735,350 new cancer cases diagnosed and
609,640 cancer deaths in the United States." In addition, childhood cancer rates "have been rising slightly for the past few decades," with approximately 10,590 children diagnosed with cancer in 2018. But the good news is that, owing to major advances in treatment, "more than 80% of children with cancer now survive 5 years or more."
Still, cancer treatment,
especially chemotherapy, is a mighty tough row to hoe for both these
children and their parents. And not every country has something like
Ronald McDonald House to provide special accommodations for the
cancer-afflicted children and their parents and to ease just a little
the anxiety and pain and bolster hope.
But in Costa Rica, an
important trading partner and a country with which we maintain close
diplomatic relations, Daniel Project (Proyecto
has stepped up in the last few years to fill that need for young
cancer patients. It's an incredible story that inspires hope with the
triumph of the human spirit over adversity.
Daniel Project owes its name
to the person who inspired the program with his desire to serve
others and his indomitable spirit – Daniel Arce. When he was just
15 years old, Daniel was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone
cancer. It was a diagnosis that caught the family completely off
guard. Daniel and his family fought hard for several years until he
finally succumbed to the disease.
Daniel may have lost the
battle to cancer, but he came out a winner nevertheless.
Into its eighth year now,
Daniel Project is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping
young people 13 to 25 years old overcome cancer in better facilities.
"The corporation pays occasional visits to cancer patients,
makes presentations, and raises funds for the improvement of the
hospitals' infrastructure, encouraging these people to battle cancer
with a good mentality" (The
Costa Rica News).
That description is true as far as it goes, but it's more than a little impersonal. It doesn't capture the true spirit of Daniel Project
or indicate the profound
impact it has had – and continues to have – on certain young
Daniel's mother Ligia is
president of the organization and came much closer when she said,
"The situation for teen cancer patients was terrible . . . The
project has contributed to healthcare centers with orthopedic beds
and the rebuilding of some healthcare institutions. I feel Daniel's
fighting spirit present in this project. He has been the inspiration
of this association. The initiative was born when my son passed . . .
but his dream came true on that date as well" (The
Costa Rica News).
Really, though, the seeds for
Daniel Project were planted almost 50 years ago in upstate New York.
That's when an already large family of nine children agreed to host a
foreign exchange student from Costa Rica. Bernardo Gutierez came to
the US, lived with the Kujawski family, and became Bruce Kujawski's
foreign exchange brother and best friend.
After his time as a foreign
exchange student, Bernardo returned to the US for four years and
graduated from West Point. After returning to Costa Rica, he was
eventually appointed Minister of Transportation and had three
children along the way, all of whom attended college in the US.
Daniel was the youngest of the three and like a nephew to Bruce. So
it was inevitable really that Bruce would be involved in Daniel
Project when it came to be.
Daniel was a lot more than
just a bright young man who had a terrible disease, whose life was
cut short before he realized his full potential. For he accomplished
more during and after his short life than must of us can even
Daniel – Briefly But
It's an old analogy, but it
still helps illuminate certain lives. A candle is consumed in giving
light, is used up in helping us see where we're going or to find what
is important – just like a life fully and freely given in service
to others. Daniel's life was a lot like that.
Think of the Paschal candle at
Easter Vigil. One large brightly burning candle provides the flame
and light for all the others. Those nearest the aisle down which the
candle is carried light their smaller candles from that single
brighter one. And then each person passes the flame to his or her
neighbor till all the candles are aglow and the dark building is
filled with light. It is light and life – a sign of a better and
brighter world coming.
And so it was with Daniel,
youngest child of Bernardo and Ligia . . .
Although diagnosed with
osteosarcoma at the age of 15, Daniel graduated from high school with
his class in 2006. Then in the fall of 2007 Daniel began his college
career at Ramapo College in New Jersey. He took classes and fought
the disease for another year. Not only was Daniel an excellent
student, but he was also an accomplished pianist, guitarist, and
vocalist. In fact, he was preparing for a performance at Radio City
Music Hall when the disease took him.
Unlike most students, Daniel
considered attending school, especially college, a privilege. Because
of surgeries and chemotherapy treatments, he was often confined to a
hospital bed and was forced to miss classes. Still, at Ramapo
Colleger, he maintained a 4.00 GPA and gave of himself when he was
able to, making the most of his college experience.
Sadly, Daniel passed away one
month before his graduation. But he made the most of his time at
Ramapo. While undergoing treatment along with eight major surgeries,
Daniel tutored more than 30 kids – many of whom later said they
would have flunked out without his help and encouragement.
To honor Daniel, a scholarship
was set up at Ramapo College, the Daniel Arce Scholarship. This
scholarship is awarded to the student who best exemplifies Daniel's
spirit in helping others, especially peers. Candidates for the
scholarship must be finance majors with a strong interest in music or
sports. They also must be students who "keep a positive
attitude, despite difficult situations" – like Daniel who faced his illness head on with courage, a positive attitude, and a
determination to help others as long as he was allowed.
Check out this video that
captures the essential Daniel:
Daniel Project Grows
Daniel Project grew out of
Daniel's expressed desire to provide better conditions for other
young people facing what he did. On a visit to Costa Rica, Bruce
Kujawski and his wife were visiting with Daniel. He said that he was
determined to beat the disease and that he then wanted to find a way
to provide well equipped rooms like those in the US (which were then
lacking in Costa Rican hospitals) for children and young people being
treated for cancer.
Daniel Project grew out of
this desire expressed in this conversation. And that's also why Bruce
has been involved from the beginning.
Daniel's mother, Ligia, has
been heavily involved with the program since its inception. Early on
she was able to convince a state-run hospital to give up two rooms
for young cancer patients receiving treatment. Today, there are two
such rooms – extensively remodeled and the nicest rooms in the
hospital – in three different hospitals in the capital city of San
Jose. The remodeled, amenity-equipped rooms are specifically reserved
for 13-21-year-olds battling cancer. And now plans are in the works
to add or dedicate chemo wings in these hospitals for these young
But Daniel Project aspires to
accomplish even more. "We are still working," according to
Ligia, "to build a hospital for cancer patients" (The
Costa Rica News).
and the Christmas Party
Now, this is where Bruce
Kujawski fits into the picture . . .
Bruce is a 65-year-old native
of upstate New York who makes his living as a general contractor in
the Rochester area. He is the eldest
son from a family of
nine siblings and is a self-described "country boy who grows his
own vegetables." He proudly declares that being allowed to
participate in Daniel Project – getting to see teenagers helping
other teenagers in volunteer programs – is "food for my soul."
Speaking of food, Bruce is
also known as "the pie guy." His grandfather was the baker
in the family and so was the one who made all the holiday pies. Bruce
inherited that talent, and now he makes the holiday pies for family
Bruce has stayed in close
contact with his "brother from another mother," Bernardo,
Daniel's father. He has always been "Uncle Bruce" to Daniel
and Bernardo's other children, and his mother is known as "Grandma
K." Bruce is also Santa Claus . . . or, more accurately,
Because Daniel Project is
based on service and giving, a hugely important component is the
annual Christmas party. Every year for the past five years, Bruce has
dressed up as Santa Clause and given out colorful bandanas to the
young cancer patients in the hospitals. He also visits in their rooms
those too sick to attend the party. He visits and encourages, hands
out bandanas for head coverings, and poses for photos, even with
doctors and nurses. In 2017, he also helped distribute 10,000 pieces
of peppermint candy to everyone – patients, medical staff, and
After Bruce first got involved
in this way, his family began pitching in, helping raise and
contributing funds for gifts and travel. After deciding to eliminate
individual gift giving at Christmas, his family elected to give to a
charity and Daniel Project was their choice. Various companies also
donate gifts for this cause, and now well known Costa Rican musicians
and comedians donate their time as well.
But the bandanas have always
been Bruce's special contribution – hence Bandana Claus. Every
year, he purchases and then hands out at the Christmas parties and at
in-room visits, $200 to $300 worth of specially selected bandanas to
these young cancer patients, who use them primarily as head
coverings. And as a sign of solidarity and support, many doctors and
nurses wear bandanas as well.
Bruce's Bandana Source
As you're probably aware,
cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy treatments usually lose their
hair. The chemotherapy drugs specifically target and suppress rapidly
dividing cells like cancer cells. But the problem is that these drugs
also attack other cells that divide rapidly, such as hair follicle
cells, because the drugs indiscriminately affect both normal cells
and cancer cells. As a result, many people receiving chemo lose most
or all of the hair on their heads (a condition known as alopecia).
And for young people that can be both disturbing and traumatic.
To cope with this condition,
many patients resort to wearing a hat or head covering of some sort.
The younger patients often prefer something like a bandana for their
head covering. And Bandana Claus accommodates them.
When asked where he purchases
the bandanas, Bruce didn't hesitate to say, "Wholesale
of course." And he was quick to add that he is particularly
pleased with Wholesale For Everyone's fast delivery and now gets all
his bandanas there. It took Bruce a while, though, before he hooked
up with this bandana supplier.
In the beginning, Bruce's
sisters helped him by purchasing bandanas from various local stores.
But the sizes varied too much and the colors were too drab. So Bruce
started looking around online for a supplier from whom he could buy
bandanas in volume and in loud colors and eye-catching patterns that
would appeal to the teenagers. At length, he stumbled on Wholesale
For Everyone and was impressed with the "extraordinary variety
and the discount offered on large quantities."
Now, Bruce gets all his
bandanas from Wholesale For Everyone. One of the main reasons is that
they carry the loud colors and designs that really appeal to the
young cancer patients, such as the tie
and the star
The other reason is the superior service. For example, a recent order
was shorted because the manufacturer didn't have enough product to
fill the order. So Dan Weaver, owner of Wholesale For Everyone,
called around to his competitors to find what Bruce needed. The
competitors didn't have them either, so Dan made up the difference
with some of his religious
which were a huge hit.
And then there are the
bandanas in "Daniel orange" and the Narnja family. But more
on that in a minute . . .
Successes and Triumphs
If you ask what keeps Bruce
Kujawski doing this every year, spending a great deal of time and his
own money, he won't hesitate to say, "These kids have done more
to inspire me and to keep me going than anything." For example .
This young man had always dreamed of being a professional soccer player in Costa Rica. But he had also been, much of the time, a difficult child and hard for his mother to handle. When he was diagnosed with cancer, though, he was able to recognize the goodness in his mother and that she was simply trying to set him on the right path. Elmer began to reform and still held tight his dream of playing soccer.
But then he had to have a leg
amputated. Elmer didn't give up, though.
After being fitted with a
prosthetic leg, Elmer went after his dream. Eventually, he made the
Costa Rican Paralympic soccer team and represented his country in the
Paralympic Games. He also became a motivational speaker at high
schools . . . until the disease took him last year.
Another young man in the Daniel Project program, Ronnie passed away three years ago, after the doctors had given him two months to live, on the night of the Christmas party. But he had said earlier that he wasn't going anywhere till the party was over – and he kept that promise.
After the Christmas party and
after Bandana Claus had given out the gift bandanas, Bruce went to
visit Ronnie in his room. Bruce had a picture taken with him, sat
with him, and held his hand till he died. Bruce maintains that he
could feel Ronnie's strength of spirit as he held his hand.
Bruce first met Fiorella before he started he tradition of wearing the Santa costume. At that time, Fiorella was a little girl who had been reduced to nothing more than skin and bones by the disease. Her immune system was severely depressed, and Bruce had to wear the required sterile suit in order to visit her and give her a Christmas present. But Fiorella improved and was able to attend the Christmas party the next year. She continued to improve and got well enough to serve as a program volunteer for the next five years.
Today – The Naranja
Cancer treatment and
accommodations and amenities for young cancer patients in Costa Rican
hospitals have come a long way in the past eight years, thanks in
large part to Daniel Project. Daniel's influence just keeps spreading
and becoming more and more profound.
A certain hue of orange became
the emblematic color for Daniel Project and was dubbed "Daniel
orange." Today, in honor of Daniel, Daniel Project, and all the
brave young people battling cancer, elementary schools all across the
country celebrate a "Day of Orange." On this day, the
elementary students wear an orange T-shirt to school.
The people who have
spearheaded the Day of Orange effort are known at the "Naranja
Family." For naranja
is the Spanish word for orange.
Daniel's mother, Ligia, heads up the Narnaja Family, and the kids
often ask about Daniel and his mom because they are eager to learn
more about the whole phenomenon.
"Pura Vida" –
The Costa Rican Way
is a peculiarly Costa Rican phrase and way of being. It means,
literally, pure life
or good life or
but signifies so much more.
Pura vida can also be used to mean full of life, this is real living, this is the life, or awesome and is often used as a greeting or a
way to say goodbye. "Costa
Ricans (Ticos) use this term to say hello, to say goodbye, to say
everything’s great, to say everything’s cool. However, it is not
the words that reflect the true meaning of ¡Pura Vida! Pura Vida is
the way Ticos live. Not surprisingly, Costa Rica has been named one
of the happiest countries in the world, mostly because its
inhabitants don’t stress about things the way most foreigners do.
Ticos have a very relaxed, simple way of looking at life. No worries,
no fuss, no stress—pura vida to them means being thankful for what
they have and not dwelling on the negative"
thankful for what you have and not dwelling on the negative – that
pretty well sums up Danial Arce Bobadillo and Daniel Project. With,
of course, the added ingredient of always striving to make things
better. And Bruce Kujawski himself made this last point.
years ago a young student from Costa Rica, Bernardo, came to live
with a large family in upstate New York. That young man became a
brother to the family's eldest son, Bruce. When, years later,
Bernardo's son died after succumbing to cancer, Daniel Project was
born, and Bruce Kujawaski became Bandana Claus. Many young lives have
been profoundly impacted for the better, and their suffering
what happens when you dare to get involved.
you'd like to donate to, or really help in any way, Daniel Project,
you can find the Facebook
assist Bruce in his efforts, email him at email@example.com
or call 585-721-2721.