By Michelle Xiarhos Curran
Isabella “Bella” Marino would have turned 20 years old in June of 2017. But in 2001, at the age of 4, the little girl with a big heart from Beverly passed away from a rare blood disorder.
“Everything she did, she did with such love,” recalls her mother, Josie Marino.
Josie and I are sitting in Bill Hanney’s office at the North Shore Music Theater. We are meeting with Karen Nascembeni, Josie’s close friend and general manager of NSMT, to talk about Bella and the ways in which her family and friends have kept her memory alive all these years.
As I begin to ask questions and take notes, Josie hands me a pen with purple ink. It was Bella’s favorite color, and now I’ve become a small part of a mother’s tribute to her little girl’s memory. We talk about Bella’s too-short life, how she loved books and people and stuffed artichokes. For Josie and Karen - who lived downstairs from the Marinos and was very close to Bella – the wounds from her death are still fresh.
But keeping Bella’s memory alive and carrying on her legacy has helped them through their grief. And Essex County Community Foundation has played a part in that healing.
Shortly after Bella’s death, parents at Mrs. Alexander’s School in Beverly, where Bella attended preschool, opened the Isabella Rose Marino Charitable Fund at ECCF.
“The fund, in my eyes, is to support all the things that Bella loved,” said Josie, who, along with her husband, Richard, owns Chianti restaurant in Beverly.
Friends and family donated to the Fund. There were fundraisers that became community events. But, Josie said, “It took me a long time to even talk about it or do anything with the money.”
Then Josie recalled the times that she spent with Bella, who was often hospitalized for days at a time, at the Dane Street Playground, Bella’s favorite place to visit when she could enjoy the outdoors. And those memories gave Marino an idea. She would use money from Isabella’s fund to help kick off a $200,000 campaign to revitalize the playground in her daughter’s memory. With the playground expertise of her then 7-year-old son, Luke, who never got the chance to meet the sister he’d only just begun to hear about, Josie set about coming up with redesign plans for Dane Street. Josie and Luke visited dozens of playgrounds together and Luke polled his friends to see what they would like in a new playground.
Then, a swell of support came from the community, many of whom took part in a community build of the playground.
“Josie was the driving force behind that,” said Karen. “There’s nothing like a mother’s love to get a project done.”
One year ago, on June 12, 2016, the updated Dane Street Playground officially opened. And it’s a dynamic sea-themed play space complete with new and improved playground equipment, educational components, a boat bearing Bella’s name and lots of purple and green, Bella’s other favorite color.
“It embodies all the things Isabella loved,” said Josie, who founded the group Friends of Dane Street Playground for the revitalization project. “This was her favorite place to visit and it makes me very happy to see how much it is being used and enjoyed by families in our community.”
“I often drive by when it is crowded and all I can feel is joy knowing that these families are making memories and having fun,” she added.
Katie Kinn, a Beverly mother, feels the same way about her own connection to the playground.
“For over two years, we watched as Josie worked diligently to transform Dane Street Playground from a couple of broken swings into one of the most beautiful play spaces on the North Shore,” said Kinne, a member of the Friends of Dane Street Playground. “The playground has had such a positive impact on the community and I am so happy that we get to watch our son and his friends create amazing memories there.”
ECCF’s compassion, empathy and personalized service have all played a part in the Fund’s success, said Josie.
“It’s just a no-brainer. You don’t have to do anything, and ECCF is always there when there’s any questions,” she said. “You don’t have to worry about the money part, so you can focus on the memory part.”
Earlier this year, $10,500 from the Isabella Marino Charitable Fund was granted to Beverly’s five elementary schools to purchase new books and materials for the schools’ libraries. Donations and annual fundraisers help to build “Bella’s Fund” each year, and now Josie is tasked with deciding what cause to give to next. Thanks to Isabella, Josie has a few ideas.
“Bella loved music,” Josie said. “She loved art. In memory of Bella’s love of both, I’m looking forward to finding ways to bring more creativity and joy to children in our community.”