Christmas 2011 was a gift for Jonathan Parla '97, his wife Tara and their children, Kendyl and Kaden.
Christmas 2012 will be a bittersweet challenge for dad, daughter and son.
"I'm looking forward to it for the kids' sake," Jon Parla said of the family's first Christmas since Tara died in September after a valiant two-year battle with metastasis melanoma. "But mostly looking forward to getting it over. Get all these firsts behind us and then we can move forward."
They won't leave Tara's passion behind, however.
Jon Parla and 315 friends in Estero, Fla., recently completed the third annual Jingle Jog, a 5K run neighbors started to assist the Parla family with medical bills following Tara's April 2010 diagnosis.
The first run raised $15,000 to assist with medical expenses. The race Jon oversaw earlier this month raised $20,000.
That money will be directed to the Passion Foundation, an organization Tara started two years ago after fighting through four cancer surgeries and while in the midst of 14 months of three-times-weekly chemotherapy sessions.
Funds raised by the foundation have been used to fit playgrounds at three nearby schools with shade tents. The tents screen school children from 90 percent of the harmful UV rays that can cause melanoma.
Jon Parla said the foundation already has begun covering a fourth playground in the Ft. Myers-Naples area on Florida's Gulf Coast. More will follow.
Tara Simantel Parla grew up in Peoria and attended Western Illinois and the University of Illinois. Jon grew up in the Chicago area and that's where he was living when Reed Nitto '97, his former St. Ambrose roommate, introduced him to the beautiful, driven woman Jon married in 2001.
Life was good while Jon made a career in radio sales and Tara in marketing and sales. They welcomed Kendyl, 7, and Kaden, 4. Then came the stunning news in the spring of 2010.
Yet, all seemed well more than a year ago, after Tara was declared cancer-free following her year-and-a-half long fight. The family enjoyed Christmas thinking Tara was "in the clear," her husband said.
"We thought everything was good, that the chemo did what it was supposed to do,'' he said. "We were able to at least enjoy Christmas. And then we found out on Dec. 28 that the cancer had spread to her liver, lungs and brain."
Tara fought the good fight again, with radiation and then chemo until the couple opted to cease treatments in July.
Through all of that, she kept her focus on the Passion Foundation and its dual mission of shading school children and educating children and others about the danger posed by the overexposure to the sun.
Shading playgrounds costs between $15,000 and $25,000, Jon Parla said, and it is an expense few school districts can manage. Providing playground cover was an idea his wife came across while researching ideas for the foundation, he said.
"It is something we started together," he said. "Now, I am the name and the face of the foundation. We will keep growing, covering school playgrounds. Just getting the name out there, raising awareness about what we're trying to do. Just keeping Tara's dream alive."