After losing her beloved mother to pancreatic cancer in 2007, Maria Fundora knew she had to do something.
She and her mother, Iluminada Milian, had been extremely close. Her sudden death — which came less than four months after her initial diagnosis — changed the dynamics of Maria’s family.
“I could not just let her death go,” Maria said. “I had to do something. I had to find a way to honor my mother always and celebrate her life, and help others in the process.”
In the year following her mother’s death, Maria founded the nonprofit Purple Pansies, which has so far raised close to $4 million for pancreatic cancer research. The Alpharetta, Georgia-based organization also raises awareness of the disease, and provides grants and scholarships to families who have been impacted by pancreatic cancer.
Growing up, Maria always saw her mother giving back to those in need. The two had immigrated to the United States from Cuba when Maria was young, and she remembers her mother always sharing what little they had with fellow refugees.
“She was just an unbelievable woman, and for me personally, every year that I host this campaign, I honor my mother,” Maria said. “For me, my mom is not dead. She’s alive and still being able to help others in these kinds of efforts.”
Purple Pansies’ donations partly come from their annual fundraisers, including a community block party held at Maria’s business, Casa Nuova Italian Restaurant, as well as an annual gala held every September in honor of Iluminada’s death. One day each November, which is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, Casa Nuova also donates a portion of their proceeds.
One of Maria’s proudest accomplishments has been Purple Pansies’ grant program, which began in 2019 and has issued about ten grants so far to families throughout Georgia who have been impacted by cancer. The grant money has helped families buy medication or pay for proceeds that their insurance did not cover.
Recently, Atlanta’s Piedmont Hospital reached out to Purple Pansies to see if they would be able to help a patient in need of a scan that would help determine if his pancreatic cancer had spread to another part of his body. Insurance wouldn’t cover the scan, and Piedmont had been unable to find anyone who would help pay for it. Purple Pansies agreed to cover the cost of the procedure, and the man had surgery for the scan the very next day.
“Stuff like that, I feel like my mom is saying, ‘Keep going. Don’t take no for an answer,’” Maria said. “‘Keep reaching out and keep trying to spread the word and trying to get funds for your nonprofit.’”
Last year, Purple Pansies started their scholarship program, which has so far has awarded eight students across the nation who have been impacted by a parent or guardian’s pancreatic cancer.
Tim Brown has known Maria for two decades since first visiting her restaurant. As the Atlanta Division President of Kroger, Tim has helped run promotional campaigns with the supermarket and its suppliers and vendors in order to raise money for Purple Pansies. He described Maria as a tenacious and passionate volunteer who has had a huge impact on her community.
“She has such an undying passion around trying to find a cure,” Tim said. “I’ve never seen anyone who has a passion like her, or her giving spirit.”
Looking to the future, Maria hopes to expand Purple Pansies’ reach and ultimately have a national presence akin to the American Cancer Society. She wants pancreatic cancer awareness to have a much larger national presence as well. Maria said she dreams of seeing entire sports stadiums wearing the color purple, the official color for pancreatic cancer awareness, the way athletics events often encourage attendees to all wear pink for breast cancer awareness.
Maria believes her mother would be proud of her efforts, and thrilled that she has been able to keep Iluminada’s spirit alive in helping others and giving them hope.
“I think my mom, looking down from heaven, is applauding and saying even when you can’t, even when you’re tired, get up and try again,” Maria said.
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