Gina Giachero fell in love with music at a very young age, later majoring in it at Nazareth Academy in Northeast Philadelphia. “I’m lucky, because I always knew what I wanted to do,” she tells me over a cup of coffee at B2 in South Philadelphia. A music educator from Folsom, Pennsylvania, she graduated from West Chester University in 2004. Earlier that same year, she received life-altering news that would change her family’s world forever.
On Valentine’s Day in 2004, Giachero’s older sister Jennifer Lardani was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at just 26 years old. “I remember sitting at my now-husband’s house and her telling me. It was really shocking,”Giachero says. “It was hard, because there wasn’t just a test you could take that says, ‘Oh you have Parkinson’s.’ It has to be a process of elimination. They found out it was early-onset. Jenn is the type of person who doesn’t like to bring attention to herself. She doesn’t want to be known as the person with Parkinson’s. She was very intimate about it and not outspoken.”
A third grade teacher at Primos Elementary in the Upper Darby School District, Lardani struggles daily, but you would never know it. “First and foremost, I am lucky,” she says. “In my opinion my progression is steady, but slow. I have mastered the art of illusion. For the most part, you don’t know I have Parkinson’s unless I tell you.”
Jenn may have become a pro at hiding symptoms but that doesn’t mean there aren’t daily challenges she has to overcome. “I do have a tremor in my right side that can interrupt my day. But my meds, once they’re working, usually take care of that for me. Granted, buttons and teeth-brushing are still a son-of-a-bitch. My symptoms are more internal: stiff, cramped muscles; the strangest inner buzz or shake, sort of like a sub-woofer blaring in my stomach.”
April is National Parkinson’s Awareness Month. Parkinson’s disease affects approximately 1.5 million people in the United States with 50,000 new cases diagnosed each year. In the Delaware Valley, 5,000 to 6,000 people are living with the disease. “When she was diagnosed, we signed up for the Parkinson’s Walk in New York. Our family uses humor a lot,” Giachero says, “so our team name for the Parkinson’s Walk was ‘Jenn’s Movers and Shakers.’”
To raise funds for their team, Giachero produced a cabaret at West Chester University in 2004. “We would raise money just by asking people. And then, because I was in musical theater and knew all these performers, I thought let’s do a random concert. Our first one was a free-will donation. We didn’t even charge. It was just people I knew at West Chester. It started simply as that.”
Eleven years later, the cabaret has grown in size and talent. Moving from West Chester University to the Prince Music Theatre in 2010, this year the cabaret is playing an even bigger stage: The Arden Theater in Old City. The venue will host the cabaret on Monday, March 30th and will feature performances by talented names from the Philadelphia theatre community, including Michael Phillip O’Brian, Steve Pacek, Krissy Fraelich and Jeffrey Coon.
Funds raised from the evening will benefit the family’s contributions to The Parkinson Council’s walk, a major walk in October. The Parkinson’s Council is a local organization whose mission is to invest in local programs and services that help people with Parkinson’s thrive and research that offers hope for a cure. Their walk, celebrating its 14th year, is the largest grassroots walk for people with Parkinson’s and their care partners. Since 2005, the council has put $4 million back into the local Parkinson’s community.
Claudia Carlsson has performed in the cabaret since the first year. “It always feels good to raise money for a good cause. To do so and be able to sing with wonderful people is a super bonus. I have seen the song list and think Giachero has done a particularly good job at putting together an entertaining show. There are many familiar songs and some of my favorite performers. Hearing Michael Doherty sing “I’m Not That Smart” is worth the price of admission and a big, fat donation.”
When asked about her relationship with her sister, Lardani has trouble finding words. “We have an unspoken bond, an eerie, almost telepathic connection. Despite my three-year seniority, she encompasses the role of big sister in my eyes. She selflessly supports me through my life. When it comes to Parkinson’s, she traverses the fine line between empathy and sympathy like a seasoned tight-rope walker. I secretly channel her when I am facing my rougher moments. I imagine her courage, compassion, and humor and the weight becomes lighter.”
“I can’t imagine my life without her,” Giachero says about Lardini. “We had the normal sibling fights. If ever we had a fight and were sent to our rooms, we would then secretly slide notes under each other’s doors saying we are sorry. I really am so extremely lucky to have her in my life.”
For more information on the cabaret, visit here.