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After leukemia takes life of Bluffton boy, aunt ensures Leo's legacy lives on

Kelly Vannoni, right, and her sister, Margaret Nowlin, are photographed on Thursday holding a picture of Vannoni's 9-year-old son, Leo, who died on Feb. 15, 2014 after a tough two-year battle with leukemia. Today -- following through on a promise she made to the boy to do great things in his name -- Nowlin has created a fundraiser -- Leo's Legacy 5K Family Fun Day -- to give back to the community that did so much to help her nephew during his illness. The fundraiser is set for 3 p.m. Saturday at Oscar J. Frazier Park in Bluffton.
Kelly Vannoni, right, and her sister, Margaret Nowlin, are photographed on Thursday holding a picture of Vannoni's 9-year-old son, Leo, who died on Feb. 15, 2014 after a tough two-year battle with leukemia. Today -- following through on a promise she made to the boy to do great things in his name -- Nowlin has created a fundraiser -- Leo's Legacy 5K Family Fun Day -- to give back to the community that did so much to help her nephew during his illness. The fundraiser is set for 3 p.m. Saturday at Oscar J. Frazier Park in Bluffton. Jay Karr

After a tough 18-month battle with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Bluffton 9-year-old Leo Vannoni took his last breath Feb. 15, 2014.

A little more than a year later, his aunt is following through on a promise she made to the boy the day before he died.

Leo's aunt, Margaret Nowlin of Bluffton, promised her young nephew that she would continue his legacy of helping others, and on Saturday, she will do that by holding a 5K run and a carnival in Oscar Frazier Park in Bluffton.

"If you knew Leo, he was quite a little boy," Nowlin said.

Leo's mother, Kelly Vannoni, a teacher at H.E. McCracken Middle School, described him as "all boy." He loved to play baseball and basketball. He loved playing video games and being with friends.

When he got so sick that he could no longer do his favorite things, Leo started collecting and trading Disney pins.

He also got busy making Rainbow Loom rubber-band bracelets and charms. He gave them to people as Christmas presents.

He sold the bracelets and charms to raise money to help others.

His plan was to save half of the money he raised to take Nowlin to Disney World because she did not get to join his family for the Make-A-Wish trip he received in 2013.

He would split the other half of his profits between two causes he cared deeply about. One was David's Blankets of Hope, a South Carolina-based nonprofit organization that makes blankets for children who are seriously ill or injured. The rest would go toward the purchase of Rainbow Loom bracelet kits for children on 7B, the floor at the Medical University of South Carolina where he was treated.

Leo never got to take that trip back to Disney World with his aunt. But he was able to donate bracelet kits to MUSC. And after he died, his mother gave the rest of the money to David's Blankets of Hope.

Leo's handmade jewelry can still be found on display at Golis Family Jewelers in Bluffton. The money raised from the jewelry will benefit David's Blankets and MUSC, Vannoni said.

Before he died, Leo also donated his extra rubber bands and bracelet kits to the other children on 7B.

After 18 months of chemotherapy, radiation and a bone-marrow transplant, Leo died from graft-versus-host disease, which stemmed from the leukemia, Vannoni said.

Nowlin has kept her promises to Leo so far. Before he went to the hospital for the last time, they talked about going to Disney World to participate in a 10K run together. Although Leo didn't get to join them, Nowlin, Vannoni and their sister-in-law ran in the Enchanted Princess 10K in February at Disney World.

"And he was probably like, 'Really? Of all the ones, you picked that?'" Nowlin said. "Why not the 'Star Wars' one? Why not super heroes?"

Ever since Leo's death, Nowlin has been planning something big, something that would make her generous little nephew proud.

Since the Bluffton community was so good to Leo and his family in their difficult times -- raising money for his Make-A-Wish trip and for medical bills -- Nowlin did what Leo would've done if he were still here.

She organized a fundraiser to give back to the people of Bluffton. Leo's Legacy 5K Family Fun Day is set for 3 to 8 p.m. Saturday at Oscar Frazier Park in Bluffton. A 5K will begin at 3:30 p.m. Meanwhile, there will be live music, food cooked by Bluffton Township Fire District firefighters, carnival games, a bounce house and a cornhole tournament.

Profits will go toward the following: college scholarships for Bluffton High School students, scholarships for Bluffton Youth Sports and the pediatric hematology/oncology department at MUSC.

The festival isn't the only thing going on in Bluffton that would make Leo happy. Children from three Bluffton schools -- Michael C. Riley, Bluffton and Red Cedar elementary schools -- had collected about 1,150 cans of food for Bluffton Self Help in honor of Leo as of Thursday afternoon, Beaufort County School District spokesman Jim Foster said.

"I knew he would do great things," Nowlin said. "I made a promise back on Feb. 14 that he would still do great things. We would do great things in his name."

Follow Amy Coyne Bredeson at twitter.com/IPBG_Amy.

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