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Community pays back one of Abington’s stalwarts

High school football players (left), Boy Scouts (center), and others helped fix up the home of Mark and Patti Chirokas, who hugged a volunteer (right). High school football players (left), Boy Scouts (center), and others helped fix up the home of Mark and Patti Chirokas, who hugged a volunteer (right). (Photos by George Rizer for The Boston Globe)
By Christie Coombs
Globe Correspondent / December 1, 2011
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ABINGTON - For nearly 20 years, Mark Chirokas, Abington’s park and recreation superintendent, went to work every day caring for the town’s outdoor space, making sure the grass was cut, the shrubs were pruned, trash barrels were emptied, and the playing fields and gymnasiums were in good shape for local sports programs.

He volunteered to help friends in town when they faced tough times because of illness, and he worked hours coaching high school and youth sports. Known to many as “Choka,’’ he was accustomed to hard work and pitching in where needed.

So on Oct. 7, when he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia after feeling dizzy and lightheaded while at work, those who were affected by his good nature and hard work began rallying together for him and his family.

“It all started with my wife’s two sisters,’’ said Chirokas from his bed at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “They started a bracelet and T-shirt campaign to raise money to help us out, and then my friend Bob Ronan, who I’ve known for 30 years, started taking over some things that needed to be done at our house. Dave LaRosa, one of my park and rec commissioners, stepped up to help, and it seems to have taken off from there.’’

Over the last couple of weeks, co-workers and dozens of people from the community have worked at Chirokas’s home patching and painting walls, cleaning out the cellar, replacing carpets, and working in the yard, all with donations from area businesses, including Home Depot of Rockland, Seoane Garden Center, Glenn LaPointe, and Cape Cod Lumber. Eastern Cedar donated services to repair the roof that began leaking after Chirokas got sick.

“I am amazed at the people and their generosity, but it doesn’t surprise me,’’ said Patti Chirokas, Mark’s wife. “I suppose when it’s being done for your family, it’s a totally different feeling than if you’re working for someone else’s benefit. This teaches us what community is all about - kind of like what it used to be.’’

The news of Mark Chirokas’s diagnosis in October spread quickly through town, his wife said, because of his job and affiliation with many groups.

“He has worked two jobs and coached in town for 25 years,’’ said Patti, who works with electronic medical records at South Shore Hospital. “He worked 96 hours a week, and the two nights he had off would be spent at meetings for the town. He was feeling fine and doing well up to the day he was diagnosed, so it was a shock to everyone. It’s amazing how he’s gone from one extreme to the other without any warning. I know he won’t stay still.’’

In addition to his job as park and recreation superintendent, Mark Chirokas works part time at Home Depot and is an assistant coach of the Abington High School varsity football team, his wife said. He is also chairman of the Strawberry Valley Golf Course Committee, overseeing the town-owned facility. The couple, who have been together 23 years, have two children, Brandon, 15, and Taylor, 19.

Chirokas, 51, is now waiting for a match for a possible bone-marrow or stem-cell transplant as he spends several days at a time in the hospital with short visits home between chemotherapy treatments. He will need to go home to near-sterile conditions after the transplant, his wife said.

But LaRosa, a longtime family friend and neighbor, said he didn’t want to wait until then to spruce things up for the family. He wanted to make sure things were in good shape for Chirokas’s first trip home after 20 days in the hospital in October. LaRosa, Ronan, and others organized a volunteer day at the family home, where Chirokas grew up.

“I never realized how much work Mark did until I got on the park and rec board,’’ said LaRosa. “He maintains the town with limited resources and part-time guys working for him. He does so much for kids and makes the town look good. This is a chance to give something back to someone who does so much for the town.’’

LaRosa said they called on the local Boy Scouts, children from his newly formed community service group, football players, Home Depot employees, and friends to volunteer their time and services.

“More than 60 people came out and worked from about 10 to 3. It was amazing how the community came together. Martin’s donated coffee and breakfast sandwiches, Dunkin’ Donuts donated coffee, and the Cellar Tavern donated 30 pizzas to feed all the volunteers.’’

Chirokas became emotional as he spoke of his gratitude for the support he and his family are receiving.

“I’m overwhelmed, even by the number of get-well cards that keep coming in,’’ he said, his voice quivering. “I’ve always jumped in to help other people when they needed it; I never expected to be in this situation. What everyone has done just leaves me wowed.’’

Patti Chirokas said the prognosis for her husband is good, despite his preexisting health issues, including a heart stent, diabetes, and psoriasis. He was home for Thanksgiving for a week, after encouraging results showed he is in remission for now. Chemotherapy treatments will continue, to try to prevent the leukemia from returning.

Although it’s a challenge emotionally, financially, and physically to juggle everything while her husband is being treated, Patti Chirokas said she reminds herself that so many others are far worse off.

“We have hope, unlike some people who go through this. We’ll get through it, because there are so many people, including friends and family, who are behind us and helping us,’’ she said. “Coming home to all these people doing this for us really gives us strength. It’s such a warm feeling. We both feel really blessed.’’

Contributions to help the family can be sent to the Mark Chirokas Fund, Abington Bank, 6 Harrison Ave., Abington MA 02351. Christie Coombs can be reached at christie.coombs@verizon.net.

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