Before Natalia Sofia Ricabal began attending Lutz Preparatory School last fall, she worried about how she would fit in with her classmates.
It was her first year at the school, and naturally, she wanted to feel welcome.
Now, the 8-year-old’s concerns have become more serious: She’s not sure when she will walk again. She was diagnosed in August with Ewing’s sarcoma, a form of bone cancer.
Her illness came with little warning, Natalia’s Mom, Amy Ricabal, said.
The grade-schooler had been experiencing some leg pain, off and on, then a few days later a huge red bump appeared on her left leg, which came out of her femur and protruded into the soft tissue, Amy said.
Natalia required surgery, and the surgeon had a choice: Amputate the young girl’s leg or do a limb salvage surgery, Amy said. He did the limb salvage surgery, replacing Natalia’s femur bone with a cadaver bone.
“Thank God they were able to keep the growth plates,” Amy said.
Natalia started chemotherapy at the end of August and began radiation treatments in early February. She has lost her hair, has been nauseated and lethargic, has had low white blood counts, and has had blood transfusions, Amy said. She will require substantial physical therapy and it is unclear when she’ll be able to walk.
It has been difficult to see Natalia in pain, and to recall how only months ago she was doing cartwheels and chasing after her 10-year-old brother Gabriel, Amy said. But Natalia’s story isn’t just about illness. It’s also about faith and the community’s outpouring of love and kindness.
The Lutz Citizens Coalition, Lutz Preparatory School and Tampa Bay Food Trucks are combining to host a fundraiser for Natalia at this month’s First Friday Food Truck Rally. It will take place at Lutz Prep, 17951 N. U.S. 41, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., March 7 and will feature a band that has written a song for Natalia.
The Lutz Citizens Coalition is happy to help the Ricabals, said Sam Calco, the coalition’s vice president.
“It’s what Lutz is all about,” he said. “You think about what that family is going through.”
Lutz Prep has demonstrated generosity and warmth at every level, Amy said.
“We’re first-time parents here at the school, and I’m never here because it (Natalia’s health battle) started with the first day of meet and greet,” Amy said. “So, I’m a pretty invisible person.”
The school has embraced the family anyway, and has gone out of its way to support them, using the online voice and video communication service Skype, for instance, to stay in touch when Natalia can’t be in school.
Several students and a teacher also demonstrated their compassion by shaving their heads so Natalia wouldn’t feel conspicuous when returning to school.
The Ricabals have experienced financial challenges, too, as Amy had to step away from her job as an ultrasound sonographer to provide care for Natalia. The family always has relied on both her paycheck and her husband Isaias’s paycheck, Amy said. Her husband is a coach at a charter school.
Amy is not afraid because she knows God will see the family through.
“I just have to focus on my daughter. I can’t worry,” she said. “God is teaching me to just let it go and to rely completely on him, in him — not on my own understanding.”
God’s help has come in many forms, Amy said, like from her mother, who left her missionary work in the Dominican Republic to come help the family.
Natalia’s American Heritage Girl Scouts troop has been an enormous help as well. It was through the troop’s church, Christ Church of Lutz, that Seal Swim School adopted the family for Christmas. The church also provided 40 frozen meals for the family, and bought them a freezer.
Members of the Ricabals’ church — Exciting Idlewild Baptist Church — have stepped up, too. A group of church friends did a makeover on the family’s yard. They also pressure washed the driveway. When they heard the family’s water heater was giving out, they got them a new one.
People have provided gift cards for groceries and have shopped for them, too, Amy said.
One recent day, Natalia was at Lutz Prep with her mom, grandmother Nydia Torres and her Chihuahua, Beatrice. The child was sitting in a wheelchair with a big cast on her leg, but she was smiling and talking about how special she feels because of the kindness of classmates and friends.
Amy said she’s been trying to teach her daughter to see the blessings that are hidden within the challenges they face.
“I tell her, ‘Look, Praise God that we still have a leg. Period,’” she said.
Amy also reminds herself to remain positive, telling herself, “This is something you’re going through. You’re going through the valley right now.”
But with God, she added, “there’s always a purpose and there’s also a plan.”
WHAT: First Friday Food Truck Rally fundraiser for Natalia Sofia Ricabal
WHO: Lutz Preparatory School, Lutz Citizens Coalition, Tampa Bay Food Trucks
First Friday Food Truck Rally
WHEN: March 7, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
WHERE: Lutz Prep, 17951 N. U.S. 41
Lutz Preparatory School, the Lutz Citizens Coalition and Tampa Bay Food Trucks are sponsoring a fundraiser for Natalia Sofia Ricabal on Friday, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the school, 17951 N. U.S. 41.
Published March 5, 2014
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