When Wil Gurski and his younger sister, Leah, lost their nanny last fall, they felt like their world fell apart. To them, their nanny, Viola Dabrowa, was more than just someone who picked them up from school or helped with homework.
Wil and Leah saw Dabrowa as a second mother, a constant presence in their household who guided them through their childhood milestones.
“She had always been such a bright light in our lives,” said the 16-year-old Leah, a sophomore at Fenwick High School. “I couldn’t imagine what life is like without her. Even now, half a year later, I still kind of walk into my house every day, and I’m like, ‘Wait, where is she?’”
In August 2020, Dabrowa was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. Her disease was “super aggressive” and quickly metastasized to the lymph nodes and her spine, said the Gurski siblings. A month later, Dabrowa lost her battle to cancer. She was 47 years old.
“I felt hopeless,” said Wil, as he thought back to the moment he learned about Dabrowa’s diagnosis. Wil, who had known Dabrowa since he was 3 months old, had just started his last year at Fenwick. And, when Dabrowa died, Wil said he was emotional and “completely taken aback.” All at once, his memories of her seemed to rush back to him.
“She was just such an awesome person, and I didn’t know what to do,” said Wil, 18. “She had a huge impact on my life.”
During those dark moments, Wil said Leah pulled him into an idea that looked to keep her spirit alive. This past year, the two launched The Giraffe Plan, a small business that sells giraffe print sweatshirts in an effort to raise money for Dabrowa’s son, Adam. Funds from retail sales are placed toward a 529 college savings plan for Adam. Wil said he and his sister grew up alongside Adam and considered him another brother.
Leah and Wil said they picked giraffes as the main design for their clothes, because they were Viola Dabrowa’s favorite animal. They laughed, as they remembered the giraffe figurines and statues that lined up inside Viola Dabrowa’s home.
Leah described giraffes as caring and loving – “larger than life creatures that would do anything for their children” – and believed Viola Dabrowa carried out those same characteristics. She was “this presence that you can’t really ignore,” Leah said.
With the help of friends, families and donors from the Fenwick community, Leah and Wil were able to build The Giraffe Plan. The Gurskis credited fellow classmate Dylan Fu for creating the plan’s logo and designing the sweatshirts and website. They also thanked their peer Maddie Miller who helped draft a marketing proposal and whose family backed the plan as an official LLC.
“It’s really been a learning experience, and it’s been very humbling at the same time,” Leah said. “It shows you how strong of a community we live in, especially in this Oak Park and River Forest area. Everyone wants to help everyone.”
“We grew up here. We were born and raised here. We don’t know anything different. And, the Fenwick community, included, has just been so helpful, like the teachers and the students. It’s truly been incredible to see.”
In a matter of weeks, Wil will graduate from Fenwick and soon head off to college to start that next chapter in his life. It will be the first time the Gurski’s nanny won’t be around for a special occasion.
Wil said he misses the “little things” like the way Viola Dabrowa surprised them with Cheez-Its as soon as they got into her car or the way her car smelled. Leah shared how she longed to hear the sound of her nanny’s voice and to feel the warmth from her big hugs.
“If I were to take anything with me that she’s taught me: patience and compassion,” said Wil. “… You can remedy, and you can heal, and you can help and improve things with compassion and patience. It’s really this virtue that she instilled in us, and she was the epitome of compassion.”