Patty Giovingo has been a Make-A-Wish volunteer for nearly 15 years.
The Louisiana resident, who lives just outside of Baton Rouge, assists in making dreams come true for children with life-threatening illnesses.
Giovingo has helped grant wishes for at least 200 children from throughout the country, including Florida, South Carolina and California.
Sometimes the children she assists go on to beat their life-threatening illnesses. Unfortunately, some do not.
“They don’t encourage us to keep in touch with our families, because often times the end is tragic,” Giovingo said. “A lot of the kids don’t make it. It can make it easier, sometimes, to just not know.”
John Hawkins was at football practice at St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville in 2009, the summer before his freshman year of high school, when it became apparent something wasn’t right with his body.
It is normal to get bruises while playing football, but this was something different.
“I had bruises all over my arms. I would bruise on the touch,” Hawkins recalled.
Several tests confirmed the Hawkins family’s worst fear. John had cancer. He was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma and began treatments immediately.
Hawkins went through chemotherapy and radiation treatments for nearly two years. The 150-pound football and baseball player dropped about 50 pounds. His weight was hovering around 100 when he was at his weakest.
“It was terrible,” Hawkins said. “I lost all my hair; you lose your taste buds. I couldn’t really eat anything.”
John’s sister Lauren remembers how difficult it was to watch everything her younger brother had to go through.
“He missed the first day of high school. He lost his hair three times,” she said. “It was hard to see him go into high school like that when he thought he’d be excelling in baseball and making new friends.”
The Hawkins family moved from Louisiana to Greenville before John was born, but from an early age, he was a fanatic when it came to LSU sports. It was understood he would pull for the Tigers.
When John had a chance to get a wish granted by the Make-A-Wish foundation in the fall of 2010, his decision was easy.
“The only place I wanted to go was LSU,” he said.
In early October, the family was set to go to a football game at Tiger Stadium. The night before they left for Louisiana, they received a call from a Make-A-Wish volunteer that would assist them during their trip. It was Patty Giovingo going over the itinerary for the weekend.
Hawkins’ parents shared with Giovingo that John was not just an LSU football fan but also a big baseball fan.
Giovingo worked with the mother of two of LSU’s best players, Austin and Aaron Nola, and arranged for the Hawkins family to hang out at Tiger Stadium and also check out the baseball facilities.
John’s trip was better than he could have imagined.
Highlights included tossing the football with Tigers coach Les Miles, meeting star football players Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu, hanging out with LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri and getting to know some of the stars of Mainieri’s team, including Austin Nola and Mikie Mahtook.
“They really took me in, and I honestly still feel like I’m part of their family now,” Hawkins said. “It was just an amazing experience.”
TURN FOR THE WORSE
John’s cancer was in remission during his trip to Louisiana, but not long after he returned home, the family received more bad news: the cancer was back.
John had been receiving treatments in Greenville but was sent to Charleston for a stem-cell treatment.
He spent 26 straight days in a hospital bed, but the procedure was successful and his cancer was gone.
Cancer-free, John turned his attention to getting back on the baseball diamond. He started as an eighth-grader for his varsity team but missed his freshman and sophomore seasons and was scrawny and weak when he left the hospital cancer-free.
“I remember walking from the wheelchair that they wheeled me down in to my car, probably about 20 feet. I remember being more winded then than if I had just won a marathon,” John said. “It’s unreal what that takes out of you.”
John helped St. Joseph’s win the state title his junior and senior seasons, a miraculous turnaround.
Throughout his high school career, he wore one of Austin Nola’s old gloves which Nola gave him during his Make-A-Wish visit.
Even though John grew up an LSU fan, he also began rooting for South Carolina while living in Greenville. He chose to attend USC instead of going to college in Louisiana in order to stay close to his family and friends.
John played club baseball his freshman year but spent his sophomore year taking groundballs and working out in the batting cage.
His junior year, he tried to walk on at South Carolina but was cut. He still found a way to be a part of the team, earning a spot as a bullpen catcher.
He spent last year serving as a bullpen catcher at home games and has traveled with the Gamecocks as a bullpen catcher throughout his senior season.
John may not appear in games but is proud to be a part of USC’s team.
“If there’s any kind of close second, this is definitely it. I get to go there and pretty much enjoy the life as if I were a player,” he said. “A lot of the guys on the team have become really close friends. They take me in as if I’m their family too.”
John has grown close with fellow bullpen catcher John Panchella, as well as relievers Reed Scott, Josh Reagan and John Parke.
The Hawkins family is happy to see John doing what he loves after going through such difficult times.
“We’re so fortunate. We thank God every day,” John’s dad, Andre Hawkins, said. “He just loves the Gamecocks and feels real fortunate to be on the travel squad.”
John will be a bullpen catcher this weekend for the Gamecocks at LSU, returning to Alex Box Stadium, where he made so many memories on his Make-A-Wish trip.
Giovingo, who has stayed in touch with the family since 2010, will be at the games this weekend.
She and John made dinner plans for Thursday night after USC arrives in town.
“To see how far he’s come and him healthy, it really does my heart good,” Giovingo said. “I’m so excited about seeing him. I feel like a little kid waiting for Santa Claus to come on Christmas Day because I’ve been counting down the days.”
Giovingo’s job has led her to South Carolina a few times over the past several years, and when she is in the state, she meets with the Hawkins family. When the Hawkins family takes a trip to Louisiana for a football game or for vacation, they meet with Giovingo.
“We feel like she’s part of our family,” John said.
Despite being encouraged to not grow close with the families she serves, Giovingo can’t help herself and sometimes does. She has stayed in contact with several families, but none in the way she has with the Hawkins family.
“We just kind of hit it off. … There’s not many young kids that would take time out of their college life to go eat dinner with an old woman. He’s just always so polite and respectful, and he was so appreciative of that weekend,” she said. “There’s something about him. We just formed a special bond. I think we’ll be friends for the rest of our lives. They’re just a special family.”
John Hawkins bio
Position: USC bullpen catcher
Background: He is a Stage IV Hodgkin’s Lymphoma survivor. He had a stem-cell transplant at MUSC in 2011 and is now six years cancer-free.
Of note: From Louisiana, Hawkins and his family attended a football game at LSU in 2010 as a part of Make-A-Wish.
Who: USC vs. LSU
Where: Baton Rouge, La.
Games: 8 p.m. Friday; 8 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday
TV: Saturday, SEC; Sunday, ESPN