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Lakewood Ranch teen has special philanthropy mentor

Sports broadcasting legend Dick Vitale has shown him how to raise money.

Jake Taraska presents a check to Dick Vitale and the V Foundation for Cancer Research. Courtesy photo.
Jake Taraska presents a check to Dick Vitale and the V Foundation for Cancer Research. Courtesy photo.
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As 19-year-old Jake Taraska walked down Main Street at Lakewood Ranch, he said he is in great health.

Two years ago, doctors told him both walking and talking would be nearly impossible.

Taraska, then living in New Jersey, was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a rare form of cancer mainly found in children. About 800 cases of neuroblastoma are diagnosed in the United States each year, according to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The cancer affects nerve cells of the sympathetic nervous system. 

Taraska also was diagnosed with opsoclonus-myoclonus syndrome, which affects one in 1 million people, the National Organization for Rare Disorders says. OMS can cause balance issues and spasms in the arms and legs, among other symptoms. About half of OMS cases are found in neuroblastoma patients.

After months of radiation therapy, doctors told Taraska he was cancer-free, though there was still work to be done. Taraska underwent speech therapy until he was 15, he said. He does not remember learning to walk, but he does remember at 10 years old having trouble running without falling. He was still able to play baseball, his first love, and as Taraska’s health improved, so did his game. He now plays for Keiser University in West Palm Beach.

For most people, that would be the end of the story, but Taraska’s is just beginning.

When Taraska was 11 years old, his family was in Lakewood Ranch helping his grandparents move. His parents, Bob and Alli Taraska, happened to have breakfast at Another Broken Egg Cafe. While there, they saw Hall of Fame basketball commentator Dick Vitale. They told Vitale their son’s story, and Vitale wanted to learn more. A single phone call kickstarted everything.

“He invited me to his gala,” Taraska said. “I went, and I raised $6,000 for him. When we moved here when I was 14, we developed a good relationship.”

Vitale inspired Taraska to start his own foundation, the Jake Taraska Pediatric Cancer Foundation, in February 2016 and gave him tips on how to raise money.

The tips worked. Taraska’s foundation raised about $50,000 last year. Ninety percent of the funds will go to individual families and children, in whatever form the family needs — rent checks, toys, vacations or sporting event tickets are all in play. The remaining 10% will go to the V Foundation for Cancer Research, the nonprofit named after former North Carolina State men’s basketball coach Jim Valvano and the beneficiary of Vitale’s gala, as well as children’s hospitals around the country.

Vitale’s next gala is May 12 at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota. Last year, the gala raised more than $2.8 million for pediatric cancer research, according to Vitale’s website. Taraska will be there this year, just like he has for all the others.


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