TURLOCK -- It started -- as do so many things in Joe Fagundes' life -- as a joke. But in the past 15 years, Fava Bean Day has turned into serious help for children with cancer and their families.
Fagundes, a fun-loving Turlock rancher, used to cook fava beans for tenants of a machine shop he owned. One year, an old friend, Dave Mendonca, asked about the occasion.
"I told him it was Fava Bean Day, celebrated on May 9 by Portugal and all its colonies," Fagundes said. "The rest of the guys knew it was a joke, and I thought Dave did, too."
But 11 months later, Mendonca asked when Fava Day would roll around again.
"I said, 'What are you talking about?' " Fagundes said. "You never remember a lie."
From that, a tradition was born. And the tradition quickly grew into something more important.
"We were talking about Fava Day, and someone said we ought to turn it into a fund-raiser for politicians," Fagundes said.
"I said there was no way we were going to let politicians in with their fliers and speeches. Let's do it for cancer kids."
Since 1995, Fagundes and a growing group of his friends and family have helped 26 children and their families. The first year, they brought in $600. Since then, they've raised more than $147,000.
The money goes directly to the families, to pay for expenses that insurance doesn't cover.
"It means the world," said Modesto resident Mark Nease, whose 7-year-old son, Ryan, had surgery to remove a cancerous tumor on his kidney and still is undergoing chemotherapy. "It's expensive living up in Palo Alto. ... During the month of April, we figured it out: We were home nine days. The rest was at Stanford."
The second family benefiting from Sunday's fund-raiser said the community support was important to their 11-year-old daughter who has felt isolated by her cancer.
"There are no words to describe the happiness, what it means to her," Delhi resident Elvis Valenzuela said about his daughter, Esmeralda, who was diagnosed in January with Hodgkin's lymphoma. "She felt like she didn't have enough people care for her, not just for her but for other kids who are going through the same thing."
As the event grew, it moved to the Stanislaus County Fairground. Hundreds filled a large banquet hall Sunday. A series of posterboards updates the stories of the "Fava Kids," many including thank-you notes from them or their parents.
Some of the recipients have passed away.
"That's hard," said Vivian Soares, who helmed the 80-gallon cooking drum of beans. But others have continued their fight against cancer, with some celebrating several years of remission.
Fagundes, 62, said he plans to keep the event going. In addition to keeping the ancient tradition of Fava Bean Day alive, he can't imagine not helping kids.
"I tell people who are feeling sorry for themselves to go down to (Children's Hospital in) Madera and spend some time in the children's cancer ward," Fagundes said in a rare serious moment.
"You come out of there, you won't be feeling sorry for yourself anymore."
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine contributed to this report. Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2343.
To donate, help with next year's event, or for more information, call Joe Fagundes at 668-2444.