The Northford-based Small family poses with the Quinnipiac University men’s hockey team at a fundraiser held at Hamden’s Louis Astorino Ice Arena on Sunday, Oct. 22, for their son Luca (center, in wagon) amid his multi-year battle with brain cancer.
The Northford-based Small family poses with the Quinnipiac University men’s hockey team at a fundraiser held at Hamden’s Louis Astorino Ice Arena on Sunday, Oct. 22, for their son Luca (center, in wagon) amid his multi-year battle with brain cancer.
Cat Murphy

Small kid with a big reach

Hamden, Quinnipiac come together to support local child with cancer

Luca Small’s name may be indicative of his young age and short stature, but it is rather ironic considering his immense impact on the Hamden, Connecticut, community.

On Sunday, Hamden residents came together at the Louis Astorino Ice Arena — affectionately referred to as “The Lou” — to support Luca and his family amid the 5-year-old’s ongoing battle with cancer.

“This is obviously a good cause,” said William Onofrio, Hamden’s newly appointed deputy police chief. “It’s dear to my heart. It’s dear to the town.”

Diagnosed with brain cancer at just 18 months old, Luca has been battling the devastating illness for the majority of his life.

“It’s just so tragic when kids get sick,” Hamden Mayor Lauren Garrett said. “I think it’s really important that we’re there to support, as a community, anyone who’s struggling.”

The young boy — one of some 10,000 children under the age of 14 diagnosed with cancer in the U.S. each year — has since undergone three-and-a-half years of chemotherapy and several brain surgeries to slow the cancer’s progression. But Luca’s parents, Hamden natives Kevin and Lauren Small, recently found out that their son’s tumor is still growing.

An ensemble of local organizations — namely, K&J Tree Service and the Hamden Police Benevolent Association — helped organize Sunday’s “Skate for Luca” event to raise money for the Northford-based Small family’s medical expenses.

“When I heard Luca had to travel to Boston Children’s Hospital to receive treatment, I wanted to do something to support the Small family,” wrote Kyle DeLucia, founder and CEO of K&J Tree Service and a longtime friend of Lauren Small, in an Oct. 22 statement to The Chronicle.

The fundraiser attracted dozens of sponsors from in and around Hamden, including Quinnipiac University.

Luca himself, sporting a teal sweatshirt and a navy blue baseball cap, arrived at the rink in a decked-out wagon decorated with blue and yellow streamers and a banner commemorating the Quinnipiac men’s hockey team’s 2023 national championship victory.

The banner was fitting for the occasion. Soon after arriving at the rink Sunday afternoon, Luca and his 3-year-old brother, Matteo, met with 26 of their closest friends: the entire Quinnipiac men’s hockey team.

Handmade construction paper cards addressed to 5-year-old Luca Small pile up at an Oct. 22 event held to raise money for his family while he undergoes cancer treatment. (Cat Murphy)

“Luca and his family, they’ve been through a lot — it’s been a long battle, and the battle’s going to continue,” graduate student defenseman and team captain Jayden Lee said. “Anytime we can support them and raise awareness and really lend them a hand, it means a lot to us.”

But the event wouldn’t have been complete without the Quinnipiac women’s ice hockey team, who joined the men’s team at the fundraiser on Mix Avenue.

“I think being able to just play a small part in supporting him and his family, it means a lot to us,” senior defender and assistant team captain Kendall Cooper said.

At a press conference Saturday evening, women’s head coach Cass Turner called the event a “great opportunity for us to show just how much we care about the Hamden community.”

“Getting the men’s and women’s teams here, it’s so cool — it’s actually indescribable,” senior forward Nina Steigauf added. “We hope that we can raise a lot of money.”

Hundreds of local residents — many of them dressed in either “Warrior Luca” or Quinnipiac Bobcats gear — attended the two-hour skating fundraiser, where, beside the raffle tables, sat Quinnipiac men’s hockey’s national championship trophy.

It’s dear to my heart. It’s dear to the town.”

— William Onofrio, deputy police chief of the Hamden Police Department

“Everybody makes a small donation, and it adds up to a lot to help this family quite a bit,” said Onofrio, who, in addition to being the deputy police chief, is another of DeLucia’s childhood friends behind the fundraiser. “It just shows that we all do this together.”

And raise a lot of money they did. As of publication, the Hamden Police Benevolent Association has raised more than $63,000 for Luca and his family — $13,000 more than its $50,000 goal.

“Today was an amazing example of what can happen when community leaders, volunteers, families and friends, join together for a deserving cause,” DeLucia wrote. “I am so proud to have worked with Quinnipiac to support such a deserving family through a difficult time.”

Quinnipiac’s presence at the event was far larger than just its ice hockey teams, though.

“The fact that we’re having this public skating event for Luca is made possible, actually, by Quinnipiac,” Garrett said.

Prior to the fundraiser, university officials donated $200,000 to the town to purchase scores of brand new ice skates for the rink.

“It’s because of the contribution from QU that we were able to outfit our rink with ice skates,” Garrett said, noting that the town of Hamden did not have the resources to purchase public skating equipment until just a month ago. “We were really thrilled that we were able to make that all come together in time for this fundraiser.”

Bethany Zemba, Quinnipiac’s vice president for strategy and community relations, contextualized the donation as a recent example of the university’s yearslong drive to “contribute toward a need that is in alignment with our strategic vision” in Hamden and North Haven.

“It’s about supporting with the financial resources where we can, but it’s also about the awesome and amazing things our students do in the community,” Zemba said. “We have a Building Bobcats program where we emphasize the importance of youth participation in athletics, so it aligned very well with that.”

Although those closest to Luca appreciated the outpouring of community support amid his lengthy battle with brain cancer, the heartbreaking reality of the 5-year-old’s situation remains the same.

“I know that they are so thankful for this level of support,” said Alyssa Piroli, Lauren Small’s best friend. “The town coming together means so much to them, but it doesn’t take away the fact that it’s her baby that’s behind this and has to fight this fight every single day.”

And the inability to escape that nightmarish truth, Piroli said, can make events like Sunday’s immensely painful to attend.

“We all hate being here,” Piroli said, tearing up as she spoke. “It’s just absolutely fucking hell.”

Still visibly fighting the urge to cry, Piroli said she hopes, above all else, that Luca and the Small family will remain in the community’s thoughts.

“Never stop thinking about them, never stop praying for them and just keep believing that Luca will fight this fight and be on the other side of it,” Piroli said.

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