By Kimberly Horg
While most five-year-olds are battling with siblings or employing tactics to avoid eating vegetables, Gian Pepe recalls fighting childhood leukemia. Kicking the disease has left the 23-year-old optimistic towards what the future may hold.
Life wasn’t always rosy and sanguine. The monthly and sometimes weekly treatments that lasted for nearly three years left the boy unable to participate in normal childhood activities. He was often absent from school, so his parents, Rich and Sandra Pepe, made sure he didn’t get behind on his studies.
Because his mom was a teacher, she was adamant about teaching him to read, giving him books while in the hospital. His dad and brother stepped up to the plate when he lost his hair due to cancer treatments, both unexpectedly shaving it all off one day to bring up his spirits. “It was very cool of them to shave their heads. My dad liked his head bald so much that he never grew it back,” he says.
The way Pepe sees it, he was fortunate because not everyone is lucky enough to be blessed with a loving family, able to go to a good hospital, or attend a school with caring teachers. Even though he looked different, the students at All Saints’ Day School in Carmel Valley always made him feel welcome.
After graduating in spring of 2013 from UC Berkeley, he spent his time a little differently than other classmates. Volunteering at Camp Kesem, an organization for children who have a parent with cancer, is one way the young survivor connected with others faced with adversity. Holding fundraisers for the week of camp and counseling the youth was a highlight of his college years.
Pepe describes it as a win-win for everyone: the children get to have fun while the parents get a much needed break. “Seeing kids ‘be kids’ and act normal for a week, able to escape their problems at home, was what I liked most about it,” he says.
Much of the time spent there is filled with camp activities, but children also have an opportunity to share experiences with others who can relate. Bonding with kids and counselors is what attracted Pepe to the group, making it a tradition for him to volunteer throughout college. Sports for Kids, after school programs for youth in Berkeley, is another way he spent his time giving back to those in need.
Now, with a degree in business administration, the Carmel native moved to San Francisco with his older brother, Christian, to make it in the big city. He spends most days working at Swarm, a tech start-up company that supplies online products for retail stores. His goal is to find another volunteer program when he gets more settled in his job.
Pepe survived the disease because of the love and support of his family, so he tries to help those in need. It is the little acts of kindness he remembers making the biggest difference. There were times the Prednisone made him so hungry and unable to sleep that he’d inevitably wake up his dad during all hours of the night. Without hesitation, Rich would jump out of bed to make Gian one of his favorite Italian dishes, Olio Spaghetti, which always seemed to do the trick.
“It sucks, but you don’t have a choice, so that is why I really respect my family for helping me out during that time. They are what really kept me going,” recalls Pepe. Eating healthy and yearly check-ups are routine for Pepe, who now leads a normal life as a young man, wise beyond his years. More importantly, he’s spreading a little of his own “abracadabra” to ease the sting that afflicts others.