Maria Fundora is a firm believer that even a small group can unite in a single voice to make an impact on the lives of its neighbors and those far beyond. So when her mother died suddenly of pancreatic cancer in 2007, Fundora became a leading local voice in the fight against the disease. 

She created the nonprofit foundation Purple Pansies and quickly began raising money for pancreatic cancer research. Her efforts since then have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for research. In the coming months, she hopes to add another $500,000 to that total. 

This year’s campaign begins July 28 with Customer Appreciation Day at Casa Nuova, the Italian restaurant in Alpharetta that Fundora opened with her husband, Antonio, in 1998. Each year, the restaurant holds a free event with a buffet, live music and games to thank its customers and raise awareness for Purple Pansies.  Maria and Antonio’s children Pepe, Cari and Alex have grown up in the restaurant, and Pepe is now a co-owner of the restaurant.

“It was very fast,” Fundora said of her mother’s battle with pancreatic cancer. “She was gone within three months, and it really changed the dynamics of my family.” 

Affectionately called “Mama” by Casa Nuova patrons, Fundora’s mother, Iluminada Milian, was known for her delicious soups and generous spirit.  

“She was such an amazing woman,” Fundora said. “Growing up, we would travel, and she would always bring candy, medicine or other things to a local church or organization. When she passed away so suddenly, I had to change my life and do something for my mom. I founded Purple Pansies to be able to heal, and the way I grieved was in helping others.” 

In 2018, Purple Pansies raised $250,000. The organization aims to double that amount this year through its annual Purple Pansies Gala, which will be held at 5 p.m. Sept. 29 at Freemanville Estate, 15655 Freemanville Road in Milton. The space for the event was donated by the Littrell family; Brian, Leighanne and Baylee.  

The gala will include a cocktail hour, multi-course dinner with wine pairings prepared by chef Antonio Fundora, entertainment, an open-bar throughout the evening and a silent and live auction.

Three pancreatic cancer survivors will serve as honorary chairs for the event, including Howard Young, Elizabeth O’Connor and Teona Ducre.

Funds raised through Casa Nuova Customer Appreciation Day and the Purple Pansies Gala will benefit a large-scale clinical trial for pancreatic cancer. Atlanta was chosen as one of seven cities for the Translational Genomics Research Institute’s “final assault” trial. 

“In 2018, we raised $250,000, and the majority of that money stayed in Georgia,” Fundora said. “So, our own citizens are able to benefit from this trial.” 

Fundora said “donations are crucial. While pancreatic cancer has the highest mortality rate of all cancers, it receives only 2 percent of federal cancer research dollars, she said.. 

“I’m fighting for a cause that I think needs a lot of attention,” she said. “We want to bring awareness to how much pancreatic cancer research is needed, even for early detection, like a mammogram for breast cancer. If you are symptomatic of pancreatic cancer, you are most likely already in stage four. It doesn’t matter if my name or the organization’s name is on and awareness or funds, to me, it is just important to help.”  

Tickets are available now for the Purple Pansies Gala at gala.purplepansies.org.

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