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Running in Rio for RMHC

Brazil’s Francesco “Chico” Neves to Carry Torch at Rio Olympics

Life was good in the 1980s for Brazilian Francesco “Chico” Neves, his wife, Sonia, and their sons, Carlos and Marquinos, who was affectionately known as “Marcos.”

The family lived in the Tijuca neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro where the boys attended school and played sports. The family rooted for the city’s football (soccer) team Vasco da Gama.

But that happy life was upended in 1989 when doctors diagnosed young Marcos with childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a cancer in which the patient’s bone marrow produces too many lymphocytes, or white blood cells. Marcos underwent long and arduous treatment, but died in 1990 at the age of nine.

During his treatment in New York, the family stayed for three months at the Ronald McDonald House in New York City.
That experience inspired Neves to work towards establishing a charity in Brazil to raise money for childhood cancer research, and eventually, to open the first Ronald McDonald House in Latin America, in Rio in 1994.

The non-profit organization, the Ronald McDonald Institute (RMHC Brazil), helps to support six Houses and three Ronald McDonald Family Rooms in hospitals as part of the Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC) system. RMHC Brazil also partners with McDonald’s and Arcos Dorados to coordinate McDia Feliz in Brazil, one of the most-successful fundraising events for local Chapters.

Now Neves is being honored by McDonald’s, the Charity’s Founding Mission Partner, for his service and will be among the people who carry the famous Olympic torch as it makes its way to the Opening Ceremony on August 5.

Neves, 67, said the honor “symbolizes the recognition of the work done for children and adolescents with cancer. It will be a unique opportunity to give visibility to the work I do and especially symbolize the thousands of families that (face) diagnosis of the struggle daily for increased life expectancy for children and adolescents who are diagnosed with cancer.”
Neves’s experience as the parent of a child was an emotionally turbulent journey. Dr. Saulo Moura Rolm in Brazil treated Marcos. At one point, the doctor told Marcos’s parents that the only hope for a cure was an expensive transplant, which Brazilian medical personnel were not able to do. Family members and supporters launched the SOS Marquinhos campaign to raise funds for the boy’s treatment. The initiative included football (soccer) players participating in a game and donating proceeds from the ticket sales to the campaign, Neves said.

The campaign raised enough funds to allow the Neves family to travel to New York City for the operation. In New York, the family stayed in a Ronald McDonald House at no charge while Marcos underwent treatment at a local hospital. The House provided access to medical professionals, and put the Neves family in contact with other families who had a child fighting cancer.

“In the House we found a cozy place with food and all the support from other families in the same situation,” Neves said.
After he returned to Brazil, Neves volunteered with the National Cancer Institute, helping children stricken with the disease. In 1991, Neves participated in a McDia Feliz – a fundraising event to support the fight against pediatric cancer throughout the country.  At the event, Neves introduced himself to a McDonald’s executive, and asked whether there was a Ronald McDonald House in Brazil. The official replied, “Let’s make a House in Brazil.”

Ronald McDonald House Charities assisted Neves, and on October 24, 1994, Neves and McDonald’s officials opened the Ronald McDonald House in Rio de Janeiro.  “Since its opening, the Rio House has served and improved the quality of life of more than 3,000 children and adolescents,” he said.

The Ronald McDonald House in Rio de Janeiro has become a family project. Neves’s wife, Sonia Neves, is the volunteer president of the Ronald McDonald House.

When Marcos died, “it was very painful moment,” Neves said. “But gradually I, my wife Sonia, my son Carlos and friends, we decided to turn grief into a cause and help other families.”
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