The Bensonhurst community is wrapping its arms around two young sisters who tragically lost their mom on Mother’s Day only 17 months after their father died of cancer.
Gabriella and Olivia DeLeon, who attend Success Academy Bensonhurst, a charter school that shares a building with Seth Low Intermediate School at 99 Avenue P, are orphans but are receiving a great deal of love and support in their time of need.
A fundraising effort is under way. Their 26-year-old brother, Anthony Papa, has agreed to become their guardian and to have them move in with him and lawyer of Inna Fershteyn is working pro bono to set up a trust fund for them. The family dentist, Dr. Leona Kotlyar, announced that she will take care of their dental need for free.
Their mother, Bridget DeLeon died on May 13. The cause of her death has not yet been determined. Their dad, Pedro DeLeon, died of cancer in 2017.
Gabriella, nine, is a fourth grader at Success Academy Bensonhurst. Olivia, eight, is a third grade student.
“So much uncertainty is facing these girls. That is why we need to do something,” said Polina Bulman, a friend of Bridget DeLeon’s and a Success Academy Bensonhurst parent.
Bulman started a GoFundMe page on May 16 under the title “For Bridget’s Girls Secure Future” to raise money. The page was originally established to raise $10,000 to pay for Bridget DeLeon’s funeral. But so much money poured in, $51,895 at last count, that Bulman decided to donate whatever funds were left over after funeral expenses were paid to the girls. Fershteyn, who contributed to the fund, is establishing a trust for the sisters.
The funeral took place on May 19.
Fershteyn, who is a member of the Pediatric Advisory Board at NYU Langone Hospital, said the long-term goal is to raise $200,000; $100,000 for each sister. The effort is off to a good start, she said. “It was wonderful to see the community come together,” she added.
The trust will insure that the sisters will still be eligible for Medicaid and other governmental services should the need arise, Fershteyn said.
Papa said his family is devastated by his mother’s sudden death. “But we’re grateful for the generosity of the community. It’s overwhelming. And it’s not just the money. People have told us wonderful stories about her,” he said.
He described his mother as a warm, generous woman who “couldn’t say no to a favor.” Bridget DeLeon volunteered to babysit neighbors’ children and would often visit fellow church parishioners who were sick or dying to lend a helping hand, he said.
“She also had a fun side. She loved to laugh and had a great sense of humor,” Papa said.
Papa’s days are now filled with parental responsibilities like making sure Gabriella and Olivia get to school on time, helping them with their homework and learning the names of their doctors. “I’m trying to figure out their favorite foods. When I ask them what they want to eat, they tell me they want what Mama made,” he said.
Bridget DeLeon’s sisters Suzanne and Kristen are offering emotional support to Papa and the girls.
Bulman often worked side by side with DeLeon at parent-sponsored school functions. “She was such a big help. Whenever we were planning something at school, Bridget was always the first person I asked because I knew she would say yes,” she recalled.
Bridget DeLeon had been a bus driver but was disabled at the time of her death, Bulman said.
Ann Powell, executive vice president of public affairs for Success Academy Charter Schools, said the schools are not permitted to participate in fundraising efforts but added that the campaign spearheaded by Bulman is impressive.
Fershteyn conducted an emergency meeting in her Sheepshead Bay office on May 23 to discuss the trust and to help the family and friends plan their next steps. “Everybody recognizes the importance of this so they dropped whatever they were doing to come. The dentist came into my office wearing her scrubs,” she said.
Gabriella and Olivia are holding up remarkably well under tragic circumstances, according to Bulman. “They’re trying to be brave and carry on like normal. But they don’t like getting a lot of attention. When you’re young like them, you just want to blend in,” she said.
To donate to the GoFundMe campaign, visit: https://www.gofundme.com/for-bridgets-girls.