Keeping the Spark Alive

Story by Maria T. Khan

Photos by Pooya Salehyar

Support center helps little girl thrive after father dies

Photo by: Pooya Salehyar


Gabriella “Gabby” Paoletti loves playing with her Barbie dolls.

“You get to dress them up with different personalities and they’re not living,” says Gabby.

Barbie dolls don’t die. The same can’t be said for humans. Two weeks before Gabby started the third grade, her father died from pancreatic cancer.

“I didn’t actually see him,” says Gabby.

I was at camp, it was summer. My mom told me it was his last day to live.”

Within days of his death, Gabby and her mom, Lisa Paoletti, moved to a condominium after Lisa’s brother-in-law kicked them out of the house. In a short time frame, 8-year-old Gabby was forced to say goodbye to her dad, house, fish, rabbit, chickens and duck.

“I was in deep, deep depression and kind of like shock,” says Gabby.

For Lisa, the hardest part about losingher husband was watching her daughter break down. Gabby popped off heads of her Barbie dolls and broke pencils out of repressed anger. In school, Lisa volunteered every day to let Gabby know she was there. She saw Gabby spend her lunchtime or break away from friends because she thought she was the only one without a father.

“In her mind, everybody who had two parents had a better life,” says Lisa.

Gabby would not get to take her father to school events and never again would he buy her a scooter or a “stuffy.”

Gabby cried a lot and missed her daddy. With a good support system, Gabby braved the pain as she learned to face her new reality.

Lisa reached out to weSPARK (Support. Prevention. Acceptance. Recovery. Knowledge.), a non-profit organization that offers free of charge treatment to adult cancer patients and their friends and families. Various sessions of yoga, relaxation therapy, cooking and karate are designed to heal a person’s body, mind and spirit.

Located on Ventura Boulevard and Sunnyslope Avenue, weSPARK looks like a furniture store at a glimpse. Walking in, one embraces the home-like feel not just from the peaceful setting of a mahogany dining table, the lightly colored calming walls, the friendly picture frames, or the soft green carpet, but from the kind-hearted people. At weSPARK the children find a place where they are not “the kid whose mom or dad has cancer”.

Nancy Allen, the executive director, says that one of the greatest assets of weSPARK is that the patients are grouped with those in similar circumstances.

“At weSPARK the great thing is when someone says ‘I know what you’re going through,’ they actually know what you’re going through,” explains Carlen Johnson, a teen who has been volunteering for four years.

Patients at weSPARK transition from a patient into a teacher, mentor or caregiver for the new patients. Nancy has seen Gabby transform. When a 6-year-old boy, who lost his mom to cancer, came into weSPARK. Gabby was relieved that someone understood her circumstances.

At a Valentine’s Day dinner, the boy was hesitant to explain his feelings, so he asked Gabby to help him.

“Gabby was like ‘oh yeah I can,’” recalls Nancy. “She looked right at him and told him how she gets through, and how she feels. You could just see him taking it in.”

For about two years Gabby has been attending weekly children sessions at weSPARK. Now 10 years old, she has become the group facilitator’s right hand.

“Gabby’s really become quite a leader,” says Nancy. “I think a lot of the kids look up to her because she has survived their worst fear and she’s okay.”

Carlen enjoys the extended family she has made as a volunteer at weSPARK, including Gabby.  They love to dance together and gossip about the latest episode of “Victorious,” a popular Nickelodeon show.

Gabby’s a brave little girl,” says Carlen. “For a little girl she’s been through a lot, but her poise and strength come through.”

Lisa finds that she and her daughter are more at peace because of the people at weSPARK.

“We were always afraid of the unknown and now that it’s finally happened we’ve had the support of weSPARK all the way through,” Lisa says. “We were able to get through the acceptance part with a strong support system.

At first Gabby wasn’t sure about attending weekly sessions. But WeSPARK and her mom are the support system that brought Gabby to be who she is today.

“I accepted the fact that he died and you can’t take that back,” says Gabby.

Gabby hopes to be an artist or an architect when she grows up. She loves to draw people and comic strips even if they don’t come out how she imagines them in her head.

She still gets upset when her toys break, but she no longer pulls off the Barbie heads in anger.

“I love drawing! It’s what I do best,” says Gabby. “I’m fine with it not being perfect. Life’s not perfect.”

Thanks to the support, the spark has been put back into Gabby’s life.

Photos by Pooya Salehyar