Silvia Vanni on Her Motherly Mission

Channeling the pain of losing her own son to childhood cancer, Miami mom Silvia Vanni is working to help children in the same situation get the most out of life—and to find a cure for the disease once and for all.


It’s been more than seven years since Silvia Vanni’s youngest son, Sal, passed away just shy of his 8th birthday. But the agony of losing her child to cancer never seems to fade. This Miami mother’s first waking thought each morning is always of her baby: Sal’s favorite color was blue; he was obsessed with sharks and Power Rangers; and he was always laughing, singing and dancing, even in the toughest of times. After being diagnosed at 4 years old with stage IV neuroblastoma, the most common and aggressive cancerous tumor in children, Sal endured 55 cycles of chemo, 50 rounds of radiation, 12 surgeries and a host of clinical trials that took the family all over the country. “Usually, all we see are pictures or videos of cute, bald children smiling in the hospital,” said Vanni. “Most people don’t understand what these kids go through. It’s torture.”

Vanni knows only too well what these families must deal with daily, and her pain has fueled an unrelenting passion to find a cure for childhood cancer and to make life better for those children and parents facing the unforgiving disease. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Mystic Force Foundation, a nonprofit started by her and husband Dr. Steven Vanni that has now raised nearly $1 million for childhood cancer research. (Steven, a neurosurgeon, also started a lab in 2008 at the University of Miami devoted to finding a cure for childhood cancer.) From traveling to Washington, D.C., to advocate for funding to hosting monthly family fun nights at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, where she lets the kids pick out as many toys as they want, every moment of Vanni’s day is hyper-focused on pediatric cancer. “The most important thing is to keep your child happy during treatment and for them to feel like they have a normal life, which is difficult,” she says. “Every decision I make is based on what Sal would enjoy and like. He’s my inspiration.”

A dream Vanni has had for years finally came true this past September when she opened Heroes Hangout in North Miami Beach, a spot for kids with cancer to hang out between treatments, since their compromised immune systems often don’t allow them to be exposed to the public in places like toy stores or playgrounds. Absent are the white coats and scary machines; instead, the place is packed with toys, video games, iPads, crafts, a 65-inch television, bean bags, and plenty of nooks to read or play board games. The best part: the space and everything in it, from the floors to the stocked refrigerators, were donated. “I don’t think there was one person that I asked to help that said no,” said Vanni of the community’s generosity, including attorney Victor Dante, who owns the plaza and offered the space rent-free. The location is strategic, close to Miami-Dade and Broward county hospitals, and Vanni has plans for special parties and movie nights for the kids. At the grand opening of Heroes Hangout, Vanni watched a young boy who had lost both of his eyes to cancer play out his dream of being a DJ, pumping out his favorite tunes for the special night. “It’s the first real happiness I’ve felt since Sal,” she says. “I know it’s something he would be so proud of, and it’s like his heart is in it as well.”

But, for Vanni, Heroes Hangout isn’t enough. She’s always looking for more ways to permanently end the suffering. “I won’t stop until we find a cure for childhood cancer,” she promises, “and I can finally stop throwing these parties, and the kids will be on the playground where they should be.”

Heroes Hangout, 1943 NE 164th St., North Miami Beach; 305.726.1155;

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