“Know what is essential and important in living — relationships, family, friends, honesty and trust,” is an excerpt from the book “The Sun Will Shine,” a compilation of personal journal entries written by Pina Cotesta’s daughter, Laura.
Laura was a teenager bravely facing her own mortality when she put these compelling words to paper. First diagnosed with a spinal cord tumour at the age of eight, Laura battled cancer five times before her death at 18.
Cotesta has dedicated her volunteer life to honouring the memory of her daughter.
“Laura’s journals are a powerful reminder that it’s important to leave a legacy of kindness and caring for others, no matter how difficult your own personal struggles are,” she said. “And a reminder to appreciate the sacrifices parents make to ensure their children have opportunities and a good life.”
Cotesta’s parents emigrated from Italy to Canada, seeking a better life for their family.
In 1951, her late father, Gisberto Falvo, left his wife and baby in the Province of Catanzano to establish roots for the family in Canada. A young man with a strong work ethic and a strong back, he managed to find work in the gold mines around Rouyn-Noranda, Que. It was 1956 before Cotesta’s mother, Grazia, could join her husband.
“It was a tough start in those early years,” said Cotesta. “Many immigrants couldn’t speak English, and most had little money to start over in a foreign land.”
When Noranda mine laid off workers in the late 1950s, the Falvo family relocated to Sudbury. Fortunately, there was a long career awaiting Pina’s dad at the Inco Smelter.
The second of four children, Cotesta has one brother and two sisters. The eldest, Fedele, was born in Italy, while Pina, Ida and Rosina were born in Canada.
“We all had such a wonderful childhood growing up in Gatchell. A lot of European immigrant families settled there and became proud Canadian citizens. Our neighbourhood was a very close-knit community.”
Soon after graduating from Lockerby Composite School in the late 1970s, Cotesta launched her career in accounting and bookkeeping — valuable administrative skills she has carried into her own family business.
Her husband of 43 years, Giulio Cotesta, is a contractor and bricklayer who came to Canada from Italy in 1969. They own and operate a local construction company.
The Cotestas started a family early. By 1986, they had three beautiful daughters, Daniela, Melissa and Laura.
Daniela is a teacher at R.L. Beattie Public School. She and husband, Luigi, have two girls, ages four and three. Melissa is a manager at Health Sciences North. She and husband, Marco, have a four-year-old daughter and a newborn baby girl.
Laura, the Cotestas’ eldest child, succumbed to cancer in 1997 after courageously battling her illness over a period of almost 10 years.
It is in Laura’s memory that the Cotesta family is committed to making a difference for families and children going through the struggles of a cancer diagnosis and care.
That includes their commitment to the annual Canadian Cancer Society Relay For Life.
“Twenty years ago, I pulled together an incredible team we called ‘Love and Friendship’ and since then we have participated in Relay every year. Together, our team has raised almost $200,000 in support of cancer research and patient care.”
Especially meaningful to Cotesta and her family is their dedication to Lockerby Composite School’s annual Remembering Laura Cotesta: Kids Caring For Kids Cancer Drive.
Kids Caring for Kids was established in 1995 by Laura herself, even as she faced multiple operations and endured gruelling treatments. She was determined to develop a way for her school to support research and family support for pediatric cancer care.
Not only has the fundraiser survived more than two decades after Laura’s passing it continues to bring in significant dollars to support children in the North.
“The school community puts together an incredible campaign every year. Students and teachers and staff, as well as their friends and families, are keeping Laura’s legacy alive. Everyone involved has a heartfelt desire and drive to make a difference.”
The annual campaign has included a variety of activities that students can take part in — everything from bagging groceries to selling commemorative sweatshirts — leading up to the main event, canvassing Greater Sudbury.
The school’s administration ensures the door-to-door Cancer Drive runs safely and smoothly. So smoothly, in fact, that Cotesta expects donations will have surpassed the million-dollar mark by April 2021.
For generations of students and graduates of Lockerby Composite, being involved in Kids Caring For Kids has been an experience that remains close to their hearts.
“After Laura passed away, her schoolmates, teachers and staff wanted to keep the cancer drive going strong. It’s incredible to realize we’ve embarked on the campaign’s 25th anniversary. And it’s hard to believe Laura would have turned 41 on Dec. 30 last year.”
To help orient the campaign planning committee, Cotesta shares the story of Laura’s legacy with members of the school who are organizing that year’s fundraising events.
“We tour them through the Northeast Cancer Centre so they can see where patients go for therapy and treatments. The students also conduct research to increase their own understanding, knowledge and awareness of pediatric cancers. My entire family is deeply heartened and appreciative of everyone’s unwavering dedication to the campaign.”
Over the years, several former Lockerby students who were involved with the cancer drive have reached out to thank the Cotesta family for the opportunity to take part in such an important event.
“They have told me how they were personally inspired to pursue careers in health care because of their everlasting bond with Laura. I have often heard that their experience honouring Laura in this way has made them a better person. It’s deeply touching to our family knowing that, even today, Laura’s story continues to inspire hope and courage in others.”
Pina Cotesta’s Volunteer Words of Wisdom
Volunteering gives you a sense of pride and a good feeling that your actions could help someone somewhere, and those you have helped know that someone cares about them. As a volunteer your time and effort will put a smile on someone’s face and create cherished memories for them, no matter how minor you think your help is. Giving back instills a little sunshine in the lives of others and gives them hope for the future; it does the same for the person volunteering. If you are already a committed volunteer, it’s important to mentor and encourage others. I have heard from so many of Laura’s friends and classmates over the years, even from people who never knew her. They have told me how they were inspired to work in the medical field, or that they’ve chosen careers that serve and support others. All because of Laura’s courage and wisdom and her deep compassion for others.
Marlene Holkko Moore is a local communications professional and regular contributor to Sudbury.com.