One year later, Andrew Accardi’s Army marches forward

Connor Burke

Andrew Accardi is remembered by those close to him as a fearless and passionate leader. He was a friend to many and an inspiration to every person that encountered him. Accardi was able to balance a life burdened by hospital visits, operations and appointments with a jam-packed social and academic schedule.

It has been just over one year since he passed away after a 15-year battle with neuroblastoma. However, Accardi’s memory and legacy is relived on a daily basis through the efforts of a charity that he helped create seven years ago: Andrew’s Army.

Andrew’s Army is a charity for neuroblastoma research, a form of pediatric cancer, at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. As of this year, Andrew’s Army has raised over $1.2 million since its inception. The donations and funds that Andrew’s Army has raised have led to revolutionary breakthroughs in the research and treatment of neuroblastoma and have improved the quality of life of patients across the entire field.

The idea for the formation of Andrew’s Army came in August of 2007 when Dom Rossi and Rich Mitarotonda, two family friends of Accardi’s, were discussing his desire to start a local lemonade stand to benefit pediatric cancer research.

Accardi’s idea was similar to Alex’s Lemonade Stand, started by the young Alex Scott who lost her battle with neuroblastoma in 2004. In lieu of a lemonade stand, Mitarotonda and Rossi opted to go with a fundraiser that also was in line with a passion of Andrew Accardi: a charity golf outing.

“We knew we would be pressed for time to squeeze the tournament into the calendar before the end of summer,” Rossi said. “We ultimately ended up remarkably putting together the golf outing in less than eight weeks and hosted the first Andrew’s Army golf outing in October 2007.”

The first golf outing received a large number of prize and auction donations from the local community, ranging from vacation home rentals, to New York sports team tickets, to even a home cooked meal for ten people by Frank Accardi, Andrew’s father.

“The greatest sight of the night was watching Andrew ‘win’ the 42-inch television raffle,” Rossi recalled. “When we pulled a name from the bowl to select the winner of the television, I put the paper in my pocket without looking at the name and announced Andrew as the winner. The fix was in.”

Andrew’s raffle win was not the only victory of the day for Andrew’s Army. After all of the checks from the golf outing were counted, the outing had raised over $125,000, and Andrew’s Army was officially “deployed.”

Just over three years ago, Andrew’s Army marched its way onto Villanova’s campus. Accardi led his fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon, to change their chapter’s official philanthropy to Andrew’s Army. The fraternity has raised over $40,000 for Andrew’s Army in just three short years.

“We host numerous events throughout the school year to raise money for Andrew’s Army,” said Alex Gillett, a junior mechanical engineering major who is the Vice President of Programming for Sigma Phi Epsilon at Villanova. “Our events include a flag football tournament called the Phiesta Bowl, an event around Christmas time called SigEp Santa, as well as an event around Easter called SPEaster Bunny, a play on words of the beginning letters of Sigma Phi Epsilon. However, our biggest event of the year by far is the annual alumni charity golf outing. This event brings together alumni from our chapter and supporters of Andrew’s Army for a day of golf and raising money in Andrew’s memory.”

Donations from Andrew’s Army to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia help fund Dr. John Maris’ research on neuroblastoma. Dr. Maris is a pediatric oncologist at CHOP and was Andrew’s doctor there for nearly 15 years. He also serves as the co-chair of the Pediatric Cancer Research Dream Team at CHOP and holds the Giulio D’Angio Chair in neuroblastoma research, and has been working with neuroblastoma for over thirty years.

In 2007, the money raised from the first Andrew’s Army golf outing arrived to Maris’ research team. This donation fueled research and benefited and improved not just the quality and length of Andrew Accardi’s life, but also benefitted patients across the entire field.

“Neuroblastoma is a childhood cancer that generally arises in young children,” Maris said. “It is a disease of nerves in the body. Because the cancer exists within the nervous system, it has the ability to appear nearly anywhere in the body.

 “Over the last several years, the money from Andrew’s Army and other neuroblastoma charities has led to a revolution in an understanding of how the disease acts,” Maris adds. “Research can explain the disease or the condition, and we can come up with a rational way to treat the patient.

“Past treatments of neuroblastoma involved receiving general chemotherapy treatment. Now, thanks to the research that these charities have invested in, we have detailed understanding of what makes neuroblastoma grow and what makes it unique in different patients. Our team at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has identified the main genes associated with this cancer. Due to these breakthroughs, we are able to tailor therapies in a personalized approach.”

Many of Andrew’s best friends from his hometown of Westport, Conn. have planned events for Andrew’s Army and have made plans for the future.

“I first met Andrew in sixth grade when we were roommates on a field trip,” said Ethan Tassel, a senior at Indiana University. “Andrew was quarterback in a pickup football game that we were playing in and he kept throwing the ball to me. We have been best friends ever since.”

After Accardi’s passing last October, Ethan and other close friends of Accardi met to discuss how to bring Andrew’s Army to the next level.

“We talked about how to take Andrew’s Army and make it really big,” Tassel added. “We developed plans to rapidly market it, created different fundraising ideas and decided to push it through to social media so tons of people would see Andrew’s Army and donations would follow from there.”

In January, an Andrew’s Army Facebook page was created to spread the message and provide those familiar with Accardi’s story to share memories as well as donate money. It also serves as a way for supporters to stay up to date with the most recent Andrew’s Army events across the country. In just two days, the page had over 1,000 followers. Today, the Facebook page has nearly 2,500 followers.

“One of the most recent events that we hosted was a mini-golf fundraiser at Norwalk Cove Marina this summer,” Tassel said. “We always used to play there with Andrew up to three times a week, so we knew there was no other place to host this event. We received a phenomenal turnout to the event and ended up raising over $6,000 in one day. There was also a recent tailgate at a New York Jets game, Andrew’s favorite football team.”

A large effort of Andrew’s Army has been dedicated to spreading the message of Andrew’s story and the mission of the charity. There have been Andrew’s Army charity events at college campuses across the country, including James Madison University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and many others.

The final and most anticipated fundraiser is the premiere of a documentary on Andrew’s life. The film will be shown in Fairfield, Conn. within the next year, and aims to be a high end fundraiser to attract donations and awareness to Andrew’s Army and its efforts.

The friends and family of Andrew Accardi were dealt a devastating blow when they lost their fearless leader last October. However, they have rallied the troops and have rededicated their efforts to spreading the message and promoting the cause of Andrew’s Army to further the research and understanding of neuroblastoma in the memory of  an inspirational young man.