Diamond and ruby tiara be­comes fundrais­ing jewel

Orlando Sentinel - - LOCAL & STATE - By Kate San­tich

An­gelo Balles­tero Jr. had the kind of wild red hair that made you no­tice him across a room. He had a sweet smile and quirky sense of hu­mor, and even when the Eustis boy de­vel­oped bone can­cer at age 13 — un­der­go­ing long rounds of chemo­ther­apy and the par­tial am­pu­ta­tion of his left leg — he had a com­po­sure and faith that the adults in his life could only envy.

“He kept telling us not to be afraid,” said his aunt, Vir­ginia Ann Ro­driguez. “They buried him not far from my house, and I think about him all the time.”

For four years, the grief over An­gelo sat like a weight on her heart. Then she de­cided to do some­thing.

Ro­driguez, 57, owns Gianni Vin­cent Jew­ellers in Win­der­mere. She didn’t know a lot about char­i­ta­ble fundrais­ing. But she did know about jew­els.

So in An­gelo’s mem­ory, she de­signed “The Hope Tiara” — $200,000 worth of white gold, ru­bies and 80 carats of di­a­monds that’s now on a tour of Cen­tral Florida galas and events to raise money for a lo­cal pe­di­atric can­cer char­ity, Run­way to Hope. Nearly all of the fees for its ren­tal and use for por­traits are do­nated to the non­profit.

The tiara made its de­but last week at Lake High­land Prepara­tory School in Or­lando, where it crowned the home­com­ing queen and was the cen­ter of a lunchtime fundraiser by stu­dents who chipped in a few dollars each to take self­ies wear­ing it. Both times, it came with a se­cu­rity guard in tow.

“It is stun­ning. I feel like a princess in it,” said ju­nior He­len Hutchin­son, 16, who posed for pho­tos while she and her boyfriend took turns try­ing it on. “I know it has a deep mean­ing.”

Hutchin­son, who knows Ro­driguez through her fam­ily, was the one to sug­gest bring­ing the piece to her school, where she launched the Hope Tiara Club to help pro­mote it and honor An­gelo. She never met the boy — he died in Fe­bru­ary 2014 — but she has some sense of the loss.

“He was 15 when he died — so al­most my age now,” she said. “He never got the chance even to go to a home­com­ing.”

The tiara, though, was not in­tended to evoke sad­ness. In­stead, Ro­driguez said, it was de­signed for joy and fun — “some­thing very un­like can­cer.” And amid the Lake High­land stu­dents, there was more levity than awe.

The kids prac­ticed mock princess waves and Meghan Markle im­pres­sions, and dean and foot­ball coach Mick Davis agreed to a brief pose, the tiara atop his crew cut, af­ter stu­dents plunked down a do­na­tion in his name.

“If I see this on the in­ter­net, you’re all go­ing down,” he bluffed as his play­ers snick-

ered.

The jew­els he sported were ac­tu­ally a stripped down ver­sion of the piece, which can be separated into two, smaller tiaras. Some of the larger clus­ters of jew­els are also re­place­able for oc­ca­sions when hav­ing a $200,000 temp­ta­tion out in pub­lic is too risky.

“The bot­tom por­tion is per­fect for a bride to rent. The top is per­fect for a quinceañera,” Ro­driguez said. “But when you’re rent­ing the full tiara, the ren­tal cost comes with a se­cu­rity de­tail.”

Ninety per­cent of the $1,500 to $5,000 fee goes to Run­way to Hope, with the rest cov­er­ing in­sur­ance and clean­ing. All of the money do­nated to take a selfie with the tiara — ei­ther at the jewel­ers or one of the up­com­ing stops on the tiara’s tour — goes to the char­ity too.

The tiara’s ren­tal also will be auc­tioned off for other lo­cal causes, in­clud­ing at the Oct. 20 Fa­mous Faces Mas­quer­ade Ball for Shep­herd’s Hope and the Oct. 27 JDRF Imag­ine Gala for ju­ve­nile di­a­betes re­search.

“It’s a beau­ti­ful thing that she and her com­pany are do­ing to honor her nephew,” said Or­lando at­tor­ney Mark NeJame, who founded Run­way to Hope with wife Josie. “We’ve had such an out­pour­ing of love from the com­mu­nity, and it’s re­mark­able to see peo­ple like her com­ing for­ward.”

And should some­one want to buy the tiara at its full $200,000 value, all of the pro­ceeds from the sale would go to the char­ity too, Ro­driguez said.

“Who knows what the fu­ture holds for this?” she said. “When I did this, I didn’t know if peo­ple would think it was crazy. I just know that I love my nephew, and I love the chance to keep say­ing his name.”

For more in­for­ma­tion on the tiara, go to gi­an­nivin­cen­t­jew­el­ers.com. ksan­tich@or­lan­dosen­tinel. com, 407-420-5503, @kate­san­tich.

GIANNI VIN­CENT JEW­ELLERS

The Hope Tiara, de­signed by Vir­ginia Ann Ro­driguez, is now mak­ing a tour for fundrais­ing events.

VIR­GINIA ANN RO­DRIGUEZ

Vir­ginia Ann Ro­driguez was in­spired by her nephew, An­gelo Balles­tero Jr., who lost his bat­tle to can­cer at age 15.

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