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We are all "Nina Strong." Story by Francesco Graziano.

POSTED November 03, 2014
BY Timothy W. Gaffney
Twitter: @TimothyGaffney


I write with a heavy heart that Seymour cheerleader Nina Poeta passed away Saturday night. I was told by her mother Dorie that she passed away peacefully at her home with Dorie, father John, and sister Cara by her side. They are encouraged by the fact that Nina's death occurred on All Saints Day, as they are a family deeply inspired by the catholic faith.

A malignant tumor was found inside Nina's brain last November. The super-healthy teenager immediately faced her mortality, as doctors told her she had a year to live. Though she would have to undergo chemotherapy twice a week, she was deeply committed to flying for the Seymour cheerleading squad. She wrapped up her second all-state campaign in March, leading Seymour to a CIAC Class S State Championship.

Nina accomplished a lot before her untimely passing. The Make-A-Wish foundation sent her to Vatican City earlier this year, where she was able to share an audience with Pope Francis. Nina attended her high school prom in May. She was named prom queen. Most importantly, she lived long enough to watch her legacy develop.

Elizabeth Pisano, who John Poeta has labeled an angel, organized a group of concerned Seymour citizens to form "Poeta Strong." It all started with a "gofundme" page started to generate money for the Poetas as they attempted to comfort their daughter and financially survive while Nina received treatment. "I thought I'd put up a goal of $5000, see if we could just give them a little cushion in their savings account or something, and it just spiraled," Liz told me last month. Over $94,000 has been raised for the family in Nina's honor since last November. 

38 Greenwood Circle in Seymour has become the epicenter for the Poeta Strong movement. It is Liz's home, where t-shirts, bracelets, and "baskets of sunshine" are sold to generate funds for the family. There have been many events too--Italian Night at Molto Bene restaurant in Seymour, a cut-a-thon, a cross-fit event, and many, many, more--all spear-headed by Liz and Team Poeta. 

Besides the money, the most collective effort made by Team Poeta involved the search for a van. Word permeated throughout the valley that Nina needed a van to be transported comfortably to therapy and of course Seymour High School Football games. This process is essentially what led to the spread of the movement in Connecticut and beyond. The family used funds to rent a van to carry Nina around until the Harte Group stepped in at the end of October. They donated a van to the family.

Nina could not cheer this season, but it did not keep her from appearing at games and Poeta Strong events. Before the Poeta's procured a van, Seymour EMTs delivered Nina to the season opener back on September 11. The most indelible image of the movement may be a picture taken by a spectator that night. It is a photo of Nina's boyfriend Jake, a Seymour defensive back, giving her a kiss on the cheek as her squad-mates on the cheering team looked on. Seymour triumphed 31-27 over Amity that night.

I found out about Nina back in September as Team Poeta feverishly worked to raise awareness on Nina's condition. I decided to tell her story for CPTV Sports in a made-for-TV package that aired at halftime of the Platt/Rocky Hill High School Football Game of the Week on October 10. It was a story that, to be honest, I did not want to tell. How could you adequately paint a picture of such a beautiful young woman suffering through such a tragic circumstance? 

When I arrived at the Poeta house, as you can imagine, John Poeta was in a state of disarray, trying to make sure that the house was in order as myself and camera-man Mike Dunphy entered to tell his daughter's story. I was left alone with Nina in the living room. She was lying in bed with the lights in the living room closed to relieve her from whatever headaches she may suffer.

Nina's condition worsened throughout the summer. She could no longer walk or speak by the time August rolled around. Her only form of communication? A head nod. I was frozen by fear as I stood alone in the living room with Nina. I was just meeting Nina for the first time in what I'm sure was not a state that Nina would prefer to be welcoming guests in to her home. I was hypnotized by the fact that this young woman was dying--and she knew it. I'm happy to report that she is the strongest person that I have ever met and being on the receiving end of one of those nods was one of the most fulfilling moments of my life.

John and Dorie intimated to me on that very day that they were overjoyed at the outpouring of support they received from the community. "There's just so much bad going on in the world today and everyone should know how good people have been to us," Dorie said with tears running down her cheeks. If there was a crisis in the house (like the busted garage door or a shortage in groceries), concerned citizens would pitch in. Nina spent her summers at a church work camp, assisting in the improvement of communities in need. The family was religious in the truest sense--very involved in their Seymour-based church. They deserved every single contribution during Nina's biggest time of need.  

The CPTV Sports YouTube video entitled "Seymour is Poeta Strong", my story on Nina, has been viewed over 58,000 times--by far the most watched CPTV Sports video posted on YouTube in our 3-year history as a network. Folks from all over the country have commented on the video. We have even heard from well-wishers as far as Australia. The San Francisco Globe picked up the story and featured it on their webpage.

Nina Poeta will be remembered for exhibiting tremendous will in the face of perilous adversity. Her legacy: a movement sparked in the valley that picked up steam reaching folks across the world. I feel very blessed to have made her acquaintance. I am thankful that she was able to inhabit this Earth and spread her message--I hope you are too.

For more information, please follow @PoetaStrong on Twitter or "like" Poeta Strong on Facebook. You may contribute to the Poeta Family Fund on gofundme.com/ninastrong.

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