Since they were 8 years old, a group of local high schoolers have made bracelets to help children with life-threatening illnesses
By David Hicks
For the Palladino family – dad Bill, known by most as Dino, mom Wendy and son Zac – soccer comes up frequently at the dinner table. Dino, a Chapel Hill native, was an outstanding athlete at Chapel Hill High School and then at UNC. For close to 40 years, he was an assistant coach for the dynastic UNC women’s soccer team and the director of the world-renowned Carolina Girls’ Soccer Camp. In 1998 and 1999, Dino served as head coach of the former Raleigh Wings team where he, along with his assistant coach, former UNC star Susan Ellis, captured two national championships in the USL W-League. He was an assistant coach for the women’s national team in 2003 and currently serves as an assistant coach with the North Carolina Courage of the National Women’s Soccer League.
Wendy, a certified financial planner and a first vice president in the Private Client Group of Wells Fargo Advisors, is a former UNC soccer player with three national championships. She’s also a player who scored for the women’s national team, which won the first Women’s World Cup in 1991. For many years, Wendy was the voice of women’s soccer as she served as color analyst for ESPN and covered the 1999 and 2003 Women’s World Cups. Son Zac, a sophomore at East Chapel Hill High School, is an accomplished athlete as a member of the golf team and a midfielder on the varsity soccer team.
Zac and his friend Ethan Testen were 8 years old when they decided to make and sell rainbow loom bracelets as a way to make some money for the summer. On the corner of their street in their Westwood neighborhood, they set up shop for business. Much to their surprise, they sold $20 worth and decided to buy more supplies for their new venture. Wendy suggested they find another location which would present a better sales opportunity. Right away the boys asked Dino if they could show and sell their wares at the Carolina Girls’ Soccer Camp.
Dino’s only stipulation was that their efforts be for something bigger than making money for themselves. Zac and Ethan, now a sophomore at Chapel Hill High School, immediately thought of UNC Children’s. They thought about what other children faced physically and emotionally between fighting their diseases and long stays at the hospital.
Dedicated in September of 2001, the stand-alone N.C. Children’s Hospital allowed something for North Carolina’s children they never had before: a facility for complete inpatient and outpatient care for children in one location – a true children’s hospital. The state’s children’s hospital. Specialty care is provided to more than 70,000 children from all 100 counties in North Carolina each year.
Zac and Ethan were inspired and enlisted two friends, Tommy Robertson, now a sophomore at The Accelerator School, and Robert Hillhouse, now a sophomore at Durham Academy. The “Bandz Boyz” were born and on their way. With help from the moms and other family members – and the disruption of the Palladino living room – the boys embarked on a mission to make 2,000 rainbow loom bracelets in one month to sell for $2 each at the camps during the summer. “At the beginning, it took five minutes to make one,” Zac says. “Now it takes one to two minutes.” Campers and staff could buy them at lunch, at dinner and after their camp meeting each night. The boys had a goal of netting $500 for the first summer and ended up far exceeding that goal, donating $8,502 to the hospital.
“When we first started, we thought we’d just make a few because we didn’t really know how well we’d do or how much we’d raise. They [sold] out like that,” Zac says, snapping his fingers. “So as the summer went on, we made [more] in between camps, in between lunch and the times we would sell. So we learned our lesson after that [and] started making them before the summer.”
For year two, the boys switched over to making paracord survival bracelets to sell for $5 each. In a nod to their hometown university, the bracelets are Carolina blue, white and navy. In the last few years, the group has added new members, Porter Brice, a sophomore at Chapel Hill High School, and James Robb, a freshman at Durham Academy. Each member also now has superhero power VP titles as the children at the hospital call the group the “undercover superheroes.”
After six summers, the boys have donated $80,000 to UNC Children’s for projects that allow the kids to have fun and just be kids while they are battling life-threatening illnesses. Some of the projects have included iPad/goggle combos for usage during chemo, rebuilding a gaming system, funding the purchase of an adaptive bike with head and neck supports for kids to use for physical activity and books for the hospital library. The last two years, the boys have provided the seed money for an app called Adventure Squad. Developed by UNC faculty members Dr. Richard Hobbs and Steven King, the game encourages kids to get out of bed, get active and go on a virtual treasure hunt. The boys’ support has led to the game going commercial and potentially to hospitals around the country.
Though the boys skipped selling last summer with camps canceled because of the pandemic, they are hopeful they’ll be back in business this summer. For now, they continue to be inspired by the impact they are able to make. Zac says the most rewarding part of their venture is seeing all the kids and their reactions to the donated items. “We [don’t] really get to see them very often or many of them, but we heard stories about how they got to use the stuff that we donated or where the money went to,” he says.
Wendy echoes the sentiment: “One of my most memorable moments when we went over to the hospital was the one year they donated an adaptive bike. Kids could ride it around their hallway. There was this one story of this boy who was probably 11 or 12, and he had never been well enough in his whole life to ride a bike. And the bike was one of these big, oversize tricycles with neck and chest support that the kids needed. They would get on that thing and ride and just kind of heal through the physical activity. It has a license plate on the back of it that says, ‘Donated by the Bandz Boyz.’ That to me was probably the first really incredibly powerful moment – just seeing the kids.”