University City

Sandboxers make dreams come true

Once Mara Campolungo and Brian Dulin started helping people, they couldn’t stop.

They met through a group of friends and colleagues who wanted to help in the community. A social worker at Levine Children’s Hospital helped them adopt a family whose child was receiving treatment there.

Soon, the group had helped 13 families and raised $10,000. But Campolungo, who owns a marketing company, and Dulin, who has worked in real estate investment and construction, weren’t done.

“We kept going back to the hospital,” Campolungo said.

The more they learned about the families, the more opportunities to help they saw.

“When you get close to the families… you begin to realize that you can do something, you can make an impact,” she said.

By early 2011, Dulin and Campolungo had founded The Sandbox, a fast-growing nonprofit that has done everything from provide a washer and dryer to a Levine Children’s Hospital family to host a lavish prom for the hospital’s patients.

“Mara and Brian just have this drive and this will,” said Christine Farinick, whose daughter Justine Seibel, 14, was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia in September 2010. “They are gifts from God, they really are. We are blessed to have them in our community.”

The Sandbox has snowballed. Hundreds of people, including one of Charlotte’s larger church youth groups and families who have received help from the Sandbox, are now regular volunteers.

The foundation of the nonprofit’s work is the idea of believing in the goodness of people and their willingness to help others.

The organization continues to help families whose lives have been upended by a child’s life-threatening illness.

“When a child is diagnosed with cancer, any resemblance of order they had prior to that day is gone,” Campolungo said.

Sandboxers, as they arecalled, help however they can. Sometimes that can be a phone conversation with a distraught mom. It can be a bag of groceries. At it’s most tragic, it can be helping pay for a funeral.

Campolungo and Dulin have spread the word and asked for help through word of mouth and through social media like Facebook and Twitter.

In March, a social worker asked if The Sandbox could host a prom for the patients at Levine Children’s Hospital.

“We started researching and thought, ‘This is a great idea,’ ” Campolungo said. “The community wrapped their arms around it very quickly.”

An Evening of Stars was held in late September with almost 200 patients and guests. Businesses such as Men’s Wearhouse and Aria Tuscan Grill donated food, a venue and clothes and services.

Justine Seibel, then 13, spent a year out of school receiving chemotherapy. She’d lost her hair and gained weight from steroids.

A Sandbox volunteer invited Justine to a dress fitting for the prom. A banquet room at the Hampton Inn in SouthPark was filled with hundreds of donated dresses, shoes and jewelry.

“She was very self-conscious, but everyone made her feel loved and welcomed,” Farinick said. “They made her feel like this was all for her.”

Justine selected an elegant, black Marilyn-Monroe style dress and a blue shawl. On the day of the prom, stylists helped her with make-up and shaped up her hair, which was growing back.

“I think I can speak for myself, for Brian and for our fellow volunteers,” Campolungo said. “It was a life altering experience.”

Justine, who her mom says is “very shy,” was named prom queen.

“How can you put someone’s fairy tale into words? I can’t,” Farinick said. “That’s what that night was. It was absolutely beautiful.”

Planning for the 2012 Sandbox prom is underway, and organizers hope to almost double the attendance. Sandboxers also continue to work with families at Levine Children’s Hospital every day.