z5By Rochelle Maruch Miller

An electrifying aura permeated the HAFTR Elementary School’s Hawks’ Nest Gym on Wednesday evening, November 6. With the crowd going wild on every shot, it was clear from the first moment that this was no ordinary basketball game. At the end of a game that was intense, exciting, and action-packed from start to finish, the crowd rose to its feet as the HAFTR Hawks came from behind to defeat the Inwood Buccaneers, 41—38.

On that special night, our community came together to remember and celebrate the life of Giovanni Cipriano. Giovanni suffered a severe allergic reaction after eating a food containing peanuts. Despite efforts to save Gio, he passed away a few weeks later. He was just 14 years old.

A treasured son, grandson, and brother who was beloved by his family and friends, Gio was a gift to his family–bright, personable, talented, great at sports, and just about the nicest kid you could have the pleasure of meeting. Blessed with a heart of gold, Gio Cipriano was devoid of pretense or attitude; although he excelled in a multitude of areas, he was a fun-loving, wholesome teenager and a loyal, sincere friend whose megawatt smile could brighten the most dismal day. Gio was a baseball player and an honor student–described as “a beautiful young man with a great sense of humor who made the world a better place, filling it with smiles and laughter.”

In a heartfelt show of support for the Cipriano family, over 400 people attended the Tribute to Gio, a memorial basketball game organized by the Inwood Buccaneers and the HAFTR basketball team.

Working in tandem with a group of volunteers, Frank deCicco, president of the Inwood Buccaneers, organized the event with the hope of raising public awareness about food allergies.

“An entire community was recently devastated by the loss of Gio,” said Frank deCicco. “Not only was Gio taken from his family and friends at the young age of 14, but in a tragic way that affects so many of us today. Allergic reactions are something far too many parents deal with on a daily basis, but when one’s life ends so tragically, and in so devastating a manner as this, it is not just a wake-up call but frightening.”

Jake Greenberg, an eighth-grader at HAFTR, remembers that every time he saw Gio coming into the gym for a basketball game, he had a big smile on his face and was excited to play.

Shai Laniado, also a HAFTR eighth-grader, recalls the good advice Gio gave him while Shai was warming up to play.

Shai and Jake were two of a group of HAFTR students who first met Gio as opposing team players, then teammates, at the Inwood Buccaneers. Shai–whose father, Dave, orchestrated the event together with Frank De Cicco, as coach of HAFTR’s eighth-grade boys’ basketball team–is a sports enthusiast and member of HAFTR’s teams. Seeking additional opportunities to participate in challenging team sports that would be within the parameters of a Shomer Shabbos player, Shai–and several of his HAFTR teammates–were glad to discover the Inwood Buccaneers’ Sunday schedule. As the boys’ respective relationships with Gio evolved from acquaintance to friendship, a close bond developed between them.

“When they heard what had happened to their friend Gio, the boys were heartbroken,” said Dave Laniado. “They immediately told me, ‘We have to do something; organize a fundraiser to help cover the tremendous expenses being incurred by Gio’s family.’ They brainstormed and came up with the idea of a basketball game in Gio’s honor” at HAFTR.

“As a team, we were able to raise close to $6,000 for the Cipriano family to help cover the cost of medical bills and other expenses, and educate over 400 people in food allergy awareness and EpiPen use. Dr. Alisa Hersh provided hands-on EpiPen training. Sami Groff coordinated the event between HAFTR and Buccaneer parents, and otherwise ran and emceed the event.”

He adds, “This event brought the community together. It was a very special and meaningful night as well as an entertaining game.”

For Gio’s family, this heartfelt endeavor has been a source of solace, succor, and support. “I want to express my deepest gratitude to all who have been with us to show their support, shared their love, prayers, and friendship,” said Gio’s mother, Georgina Cornago, a teacher’s aide specializing in special education, whose years of experience include working in Kulanu and HAFTR. “My family and I are so grateful to you for your kindness and generosity in celebrating Giovanni’s life in such a beautiful and meaningful way and for heightening public awareness about food allergies and the importance of EpiPens. To everyone who has helped me, for every act of kindness from my family, my friends, my peanut butter group, the Inwood Buccaneers and HAFTR, Lawrence Middle School, and Holy Trinity, you all help us get up in the morning. Thank you so much!

“So many people have told me that they always remember seeing Giovanni with a smile on his face, what a good friend he was; how they valued his friendship,” Cornago added. “And he was so caring–even as a little boy. He would love to come to work with me and play with my students. Even then he had the ability to make others feel good. Giovanni was great with special students. He loved puppies and was so caring. He made friends easily and got along with everyone.”

When Gio was in the fifth grade, he wrote a book called The Small Boy, about a boy who was great in all sports but just starting out in basketball. Although he was good at basketball, he wasn’t as confident, because he wasn’t as tall as the other players. He was, however, determined to make sure everyone realized that despite being short, he could be an excellent player.

Two years later he wrote:

“My name is Giovanni Cipriano and I am in the seventh grade in the Lawrence Middle School. I am currently five feet tall and I decided to write this book because of how it reflected on me when I was in fifth and sixth grade. I want every kid who is reading this to never let anyone get in your way. Try hard to achieve your goal!”

“HAFTR is grateful to be in a position to assist members of our community in a time of need,” said Joseph Hoenig, HAFTR athletic director. “Although Gio was not a HAFTR student, he was a teammate of many of our eighth-grade students in local baseball, basketball, and football teams. I am really proud of our boys for taking the initiative to help the family of a friend and teammate.” v

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