Tango Foundation: A decade of miracles

Miracles can blossom out of the darkest depths of grief.

Some happen in a flash and some take years, but what most miracles have in common — no matter how supernatural they may seem — is the powerful effect one human spirit has on another.

Molly Ann Tango

Molly Ann Tango

When Molly Ann Tango died in December 2003, an enduring legacy was hatched through a foundation that bears her name and echoes today throughout the dance studios of Ridgefield and in the homes of many families who seek financial assistance for children with rare medical conditions.

The Molly Ann Tango Memorial Foundation began in March 2004 as a small effort by Molly’s parents — Cathy and Todd — to help other families who have children with special needs. Since then, the foundation has grown into a nonprofit with 13 board members that has helped more than 230 families in several states.

“It was one little idea that was going to help me through a horrible time and I thought maybe I could help some people, like me, along the way,” said Cathy Tango-Dykes, Molly’s mother and the president of the foundation. “All of these people do so much for the foundation and it amazes me, and that’s the part that gets me really choked up, because I know why I do it, but I can’t believe they all feel so strongly about all these kids.”

As the foundation nears its 10-year anniversary with the annual Nutcracker fund-raiser set for Dec. 21, its founders can look back at all they’ve accomplished over the last decade — a miracle that hasn’t happened overnight.

“There are so many unique cases that it wouldn’t be fair to just list off a couple,” Ms. Tango-Dykes said. “Looking back on 10 years, I’d have to say one thing that stands out to me, now, is that when you say the words Molly Ann Tango Foundation, people know what is it is — we don’t have to explain it anymore; there’s an immediate connection and recognition to what we do.”

Over the last decade, the foundation has provided children and families with wheelchairs and ramps, adaptive bikes and lift systems, bathroom modifications such as an aqua therapy hot tub, handicapped-accessible home renovations, tuition for special-needs summer camps, safety equipment and fences, and subsidies for the purchase of handicapped-accessible vans — the only item for which they have had to cap requests, at $5,000.

“We had to sell our house to buy a van for Molly,” Ms. Tango-Dykes recalled. “We couldn’t just buy a mini-van, we had to buy one that was wheelchair-accessible, and there’s no insurance company that will cover that because it’s not labeled as ‘medically necessary.’

“This is supposed to help; it’s not supposed to be another thing to do, so we try to make the application process as easy as possible because we understand how time-consuming dealing with everything else is.”

Families may be from Ridgefield, the region or even another state.

“We take a personal interest in these kids and we display their photos at our fund-raisers so sponsors can see what their contributions have provided,” Ms. Tango-Dykes said. “We invite all families to our fund-raisers and we stay in contact with them.”

Debbie Haughney, the foundation’s vice president, said that hearing people talk about what a great organization the foundation has become is “what keeps me going.”

“When I think that a little girl, who made such an impression on this world and was only here for 10 years, has had her memory live on and turn so much good out of so much sorrow, it’s really touching,” she said. “The families who we’ve helped get that because they live it every day, and I’m sure they can’t imagine what it would be like to lose their child.

“We’re not just an 800 number; we are someone they can go to for support, and that’s been really important to a lot of families.”

Paige Shepard, back left, alongside Chelsea Schwartz, Ava Manganiello, Ella Miner, Jordan Rubinfeld and Georgia Milton as they perform Hot Chocolate for the annual Nutcracker production last year. This year’s show will takes place at the high school on Dec. 21 at noon and 5 p.m.  —Jean Cobelli photo

Paige Shepard, back left, alongside Chelsea Schwartz, Ava Manganiello, Ella Miner, Jordan Rubinfeld and Georgia Milton as they perform Hot Chocolate for the annual Nuts about the Nutcracker production last year. This year’s show will takes place at the high school on Dec. 21 at noon and 5 p.m. —Jean Cobelli photo

Jean Cobelli, who is foundation’s fund-raising events director, runs the Nutcracker and Mother’s Day Luncheon fund-raisers. She remembers first meeting Molly and her older sister Caitlin at her dance studio at the Enchanted Garden.

“There was Caitlin signing up for dance class and there was Molly right alongside her in her wheelchair,” she recalled. “It always struck me — wow, this one kid dances and this other child is very confined to her wheelchair and doesn’t have that same opportunity.”

It was a message she has instilled in her performers — ages kindergarten through 12th grade — ever since.

“Jean really makes it a point to the dancers that they know they are fortunate to be able to dance, because not every child has that ability,” Ms. Haughney said. “It makes them think, reflect, and work hard, and it really motivates them and lets them be thankful.”

Production for Ms. Cobelli’s version of the Nutcracker, which features a Ridgefield-centric story line, has weathered several storms over the last decade, enduring a variety of triumphs and tragedies since its first performance in December 2004.

First there was Isabella, an 8-year old girl from Norwalk with whom Ms. Cobelli was working before she died a few weeks prior to the production. The foundation dedicated the concert to her and her family.

The following year, EJ Carfi, a 14-year-old Ridgefielder, died the week of the production.

“He was going to be in the show that year,” Ms. Cobelli said. “The family was gearing up for this to be a big celebration, and it was just crushing — very, very sad he passed away.”

Last year, the dress rehearsal was canceled because of the tragic events that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School and Ms. Cobelli didn’t know if there would be a Nutcracker performance in 2012.

“We decided to proceed with the show because it was for charity and because it was something the children had worked so hard for, and also because we had collected all this money,” she said. “And the show went off without a hitch, even without a dress rehearsal.”

In 2011, a big snowstorm limited production to a single show, yet the foundation was still able to raise more money than the previous year.

“Even with these tough situations, the town has always supported us,” Ms. Haughney said.

“Year after year, as the cast grew and people got to know about the foundation more and realized this was going to be an annual production, our audience grew,” said Ms. Cobelli, who started out with 30 dancers in her original winter concert and now directs more than 170 girls, who start preparing in August.

She said her current goal is the same as its always been: Make more money every year for the foundation.

“That was a very big challenge in the beginning, and by a miracle of a beautiful community and beautiful participants in the production, we have raised more and more money every year,” she said. “We’ve been very lucky and I can’t thank the community enough.”

Ms. Cobelli said that even with the economic collapse in 2008, the foundation has endured through the toughest of times.

“Even when the economy was suffering, we were raising money,” she said. “People would come up to me and say they were canceling their fund-raising events and wanted to do know what we were doing differently, and I didn’t really know what to tell them.”

Since 2011, the foundation has seen an increase of 150 cases, going from 80 families to more than 230 who have received aid over the last decade.

The three women remember the foundation’s first case in 2004. The recipient’s name was Francesco Cipolloni and he was diagnosed with a disease that was “similar to what Molly would have had,” Ms. Tango-Dykes said.

The foundation raised $4,000 to send Francesco’s mother to a medical conference in Indiana where she met with several doctors who helped create a treatment plan.

Looking ahead to the next 10 years, the foundation’s organizers would like to build a home in Ridgefield, called Molly’s House, where special needs children could go and be treated without parental supervision.

“If we had millions of dollars to spend, we would like provide respite care for families who have to endure so much having to take care of their one medically fragile child and they often have other children in their homes that become second,” Ms. Cobelli said. “They can’t go to the grocery store, they can’t go to appointments for themselves, they can’t go on a date.

“To have respite care in our town, with a full-time medical staff, for these types of kids would be huge,” she said. “It’s a big dream of ours.”

For more information about the Molly Ann Tango Memorial Foundation, visit mollytango.org, call 203-403-7070, or write P.O. Box 15, Ridgefield CT 06877.

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