Antonio and Maria Fundora

MILTON, Ga. — Maria Fundora is a firm believer that even a small group can impact the lives of their neighbors and those beyond their backyards. 

So when her mother died suddenly of pancreatic cancer, Fundora became a leading voice in the fight against the disease. Her continued efforts have helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for research, and over the coming weeks, she hopes to raise $500,000. 

Fundora’s campaign begins July 28 with the Customer Appreciation Day at Casa Nuova Italian Restaurant in Alpharetta. Fundora opened the restaurant with her husband, Antonio, in 1998. Each year the restaurant holds a free event with a buffet, live music and games to thank customers and raise awareness for Fundora’s organization, Purple Pansies. Fundora founded the nonprofit to battle pancreatic cancer after her mother died from the disease in 2007. 

“It was very fast,” Fundora said. “She was gone within three months, and it really changed the dynamic of my family.” 

Affectionally called “Mama” by Casa Nuova patrons, Iluminada Milian was known for her delicious soups and generous spirit.  

“She was such an amazing woman,” Fundora said. “Growing up, we would travel, and she would always bring candy or medicine or other things to a local church or organization. When she passed away so suddenly, I had to change my life and do something for my mom. I founded Purple Pansies to be able to heal, and the way I grieved was in helping others.” 

Purple Pansies is exemplary of Fundora’s belief that a small, united group can make a significant impact. The organization raised $250,000 in 2018 and has set out to double that amount this year through the Purple Pansies’ annual gala. 

The event begins at 5 p.m. on Sept. 29 at Freemanville Estate, 15655 Freemanville Road in Milton. The space was donated for the event by the Littrell family, including Brian Littrell of Backstreet Boys fame.  

The gala includes a cocktail hour, six-course dinner with five wine pairings prepared by chef Antonio Fundora, entertainment, and a silent and live auction. Three pancreatic cancer survivors will serve as honorary chairs for the event. 

Funds raised through the Casa Nuova Customer Appreciation Day and the Purple Pansies Gala will benefit a large-scale clinical trial for pancreatic cancer. Atlanta was chosen as one of seven cities for the Translational Genomics Research Institute’s “final assault” trial. 

“In 2018, we raised $250,000, and the majority of that money stayed in Georgia,” Fundora said. “So, our own citizens are able to benefit from this trail.” 

Fundora said donations are crucial. While pancreatic cancer has the highest mortality rate of all cancers, it receives only a 2 percent of federal cancer research dollars, Fundora said. 

“I’m fighting for a cause that I think needs a lot of attention,” she said. “We want to bring awareness to how much pancreatic cancer research is needed, even for early detection, like a mammogram for breast cancer. If you are symptomatic of pancreatic cancer, you are in stage 4. It doesn’t matter if my name or the organization’s name is [behind] awareness or funds. To me, it is just important to help.” 

Tickets are available now for the Purple Pansies gala at  

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