A specialty license plate with a special goal

If all goes according to plan, hundreds of cars on Virginia’s roadways will soon display a special license plate with a small gold ribbon and a far bigger goal: to make passing motorists think about the wide-reaching impact of childhood cancer.

During the General Assembly session this month, Del. Thomas A. “Tag” Greason (R-Loudoun) will present a bill that would make specialty license plates, featuring the gold ribbon of childhood cancer awareness, available to all Virginia drivers. The bill marks the culmination of a project started by the family of Mathias Giordano, a cheerful and athletic Leesburg youth who was diagnosed with a form of bone cancer as a fifth-grader in 2012.

Soon after his diagnosis, Mathias had part of his leg amputated and began a grueling cycle of more than 20 chemotherapy courses. In the midst of Mathias’s treatment, the family bought a new car to take him to his many appointments and out-of-state surgeries.

When his mother, Roya Giordano, went to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles to get a new license plate for the car, she learned that there was no special plate to signify childhood cancer awareness.

“I requested the gold childhood cancer ribbon, and the gentleman behind the counter said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ ” Giordano said. “He said they had the yellow one for the troops, and the pink one for breast cancer. But no ribbon for childhood cancer. I thought, that can’t be right.”

Mathias echoed that reaction when Giordano told him the news, she said.

“He said, ‘That can’t be right. Everyone knows what the pink ribbon stands for. We have to get the gold out there, Mom.’ ” She promised him they would.

Mathias died at home in December at age 13. Reeling from his loss, his family is even more determined to pursue an end to the illness that took his life. Compared with finding a cure, a license plate is a small step, Giordano said, but making people aware of the illness is critical.

“I knew about childhood cancer, but I didn’t really do anything about it before Mathias was diagnosed,” Giordano said. “It’s such a difficult and painful problem to contemplate.”

She noted that many families in Leesburg have been devastated by the illness, including the family of 10-year-old Gabriella Miller, who became a celebrated activist for cancer awareness and inspired a federal pediatric medical research bill after her death.

“I want to change the way people think about [cancer], not to scare people, but to make them aware that childhood cancer is not rare,” Giordano said. “It doesn’t help to ignore it.”

The lack of a childhood cancer specialty license plate grew from a complaint to a full-blown campaign after Giordano discussed the issue with Jay Coakley, the founder of Ellie’s Hats, a local nonprofit group that provides hats to children undergoing cancer treatment. Coakley investigated the process for creating a license plate and learned that the first step was to have a bill sponsored by a member of the Virginia General Assembly.

Coakley, a retired coach and physical education teacher, contacted Greason, one of Coakley’s former students, in August. Greason said he was happy to help.

“It dawned on me that I have so many people in my life, friends from high school, friends from college, friends in the neighborhood — it’s amazing how many people are unfortunately touched by childhood cancer,” Greason said. “It was an easy thing for me to try to get involved in.”

The next step was to collect 450 completed applications for the new plates, which cost $10 per year, Coakley said, with the revenue going to state. The money does not go to any cancer awareness or research organizations, a decision Coakley and Giordano made because they wanted the plate to be a cause that all cancer-focused organizations could rally behind.

“The main purpose of the license plate is to spread awareness,” Coakley said.

Within a couple of months, more than 700 applications had been sent in, Coakley said. About 200 came from the Leesburg area, Coakley said, and new applications arrive every day.

And the effort already seems to be spreading well beyond the commonwealth, he added.

“We’ve been contacted by New York, North Carolina, West Virginia, California,” he said. “All have contacted us because they would love to get a plate there. So we’re hoping that once our plates come out, as people drive from state to state, we’re hoping people will do like we did — they’ll call up their local DMV and ask about it.”

In a short video posted to the Team Mathias Facebook page, the Giordano family captured the moment when Greason presented Mathias with the bill that will be brought before the General Assembly.

In the clip, Mathias is curled up on a couch in a blue T-shirt, his head resting on a pillow as Greason shows him a design of the license plate.

“We’ll get this passed into law and signed, and it will always be known as ‘Mathias’s Law,’ ” Greason says. “What do you think about that?”

“That is awesome,” Mathias says, his voice faint but happy.

“Well, you’re awesome,” Greason tells the boy. “There are not many kids who actually have a law with their name on it that will live in the Code of Virginia forever, and you inspired us to do that.”

Mathias’s family is grateful that he had a chance to witness the campaign’s success, Roya Giordano said.

“I’m so glad and I’m so thankful that he did see the bill and that he was able to express his excitement and tell Tag that this was ‘epic,’ ” Giordano said, quoting Mathias’s first, overjoyed reaction to the legislation. “I think it’s going to have a real impact. . . . We wanted to make this a reality before he was gone.”