DRACUT -- Mention the word "chocolate," tie it into helping someone in need, and there's one person you could always count on to be right there: Donna Sullivan.
The nurse at Saints Medical Center for more than 30 years and 1974 graduate of Tewksbury Memorial High School, then as Donna Doyle, is known for her love of chocolate. She is even better known for her penchant for helping others, whether the cancer patients in her care, a friend or family member down on his or her luck, a child who needed a little extra TLC, or an elderly person who needed someone to listen.
Sullivan could do it all, and always with a sense of humor. Now the tables have turned for the nurse and mother of three who always cared for others. She and her family are the ones in need of a little help as Sullivan battles an aggressive form of breast cancer.
To get that help, her friends are turning to one of her favorite things -- chocolate.
"A Taste of Chocolate" will take place at St. Francis Parish Hall, 115 Wheeler Road, Dracut, on Thursday, from 4 to 9 p.m. Guests are invited to drop in to enjoy chocolate confections and baked goods while visiting with the Doyle and Sullivan families.
The chocolate is not for sale, only for tasting. Free-will offerings will be directed to the Donna (Doyle) Sullivan Family Fund to defray medical expenses.
Sullivan, who has lived in Dracut with her husband, Jay, since 1987, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010.
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The Sullivan family, who recently paid off bills from her 2010-11 treatments, along with three college tuitions, is faced once again with mounting medical bills, not all covered by insurance.
"Donna would be the first to organize something like this for someone else," said Linda Lambert, a member of the fundraising committee. "Donna has many passions, but her strongest passion is her love of her family. Right now, she can't take care of them. As her friends, I feel we are taking care of Donna's family for her, just as she would do for us."
The devastation of cancer is not new to Sullivan. She lost her mother to lymphoma nearly 30 years ago, her father to colon cancer, a close cousin to breast cancer, and a younger brother to leukemia at age 28. After her mother's death, Sullivan, then a new mother herself, devotedly assumed the maternal role for her younger brothers.
Caring for cancer patients and keeping her extended family closely bonded, she has said, was driven by those difficult losses.
Cheryl Driscoll worked alongside Sullivan as a nurse for 30 years at the former St. John's Hospital, later Saints Medical Center and now Lowell General's Saints campus.
"Donna always spent the extra time getting to know her patients and would often sit with them, allowing time to talk," Driscoll said. "Her sense of compassion mingled with tough love helped many individuals overcome obstacles that seemed insurmountable."
Another nursing colleague, Sheila Carruth, remembers Sullivan "was always herself with patients and with staff -- so pleasant, fun and funny with plenty of energy -- and she seemed always to be organizing big family parties."
Organizers expect Thursday's event will be as packed with people as it is with chocolate, pointing out that it would be easier to list the volunteer committees that Sullivan has not served on than those she has. That translates into countless lives touched by the nurse-turned-preschool-aide at St. Louis School, devoted wife and mother, loyal friend and second mom to many of the friends of her children, Michael, 30, Mareena, 27, and Kristyn, 24.
"Taste of Chocolate" features a main chocolate buffet, a Penny Candy Store for children, a raffle and a door prize of a handmade quilt. Orange Leaf in Tewksbury and Dracut are donating samples of frozen yogurt -- chocolate, of course. Also donating are the Chocolate Moose in Salem, N.H., Mrs. Nelson's of Chelmsford, and Mrs. Leonard's of Dracut.
Though a lot of chocolate is coming in, Lambert said she won't be surprised if it runs out based on the number of people who want to come out to support the well-loved family.
Committee member Regina Rich adds that Sullivan "has enriched the lives of so many people."
"She has such an infectious enthusiasm in her effort to give back," Rich added. "Remembering that spirit is what is inspiring us to give back in that very same spirit."
Anyone who can't make the event and wishes to donate can send checks to the Donna (Doyle) Sullivan Family Fund, c/o Enterprise Bank, 1168 Lakeview Ave., Dracut, MA 01826, or online at www.wepay.com/donations/donna-doyle-sullivan-family-fund.
For more information or to donate, call 978-452-6611 or email email@example.com.