In Kids & Family

Jo Ann Thrailkill is dedicated to fighting childhood cancer with love.

Pablove co-founder channels loss into hope

Jo Ann Thrailkill is the executive director and co-founder of the Pablove Foundation, an organization that funds pediatric cancer research and advances in treatment, educates and empowers cancer families and improves the quality of life for children living with cancer through hospital play, music and arts programs.

Thraillkill was born and raised in New Orleans – and today she lives in Los Angeles – but she has made and kept Milwaukee connections for a long time.

Her husband, Jeff Castelaz, who is the current president of Elektra Records, was born and raised in Milwaukee.

In 2003, the couple had a son, Pablo, who, at the age of six, lost a valiant, year-long battle with bilateral Wilms Tumor, a rare form of childhood cancer.

Thrailkill and Castelaz went on to start the Pablove Foundation. In the last three years, the foundation has provided research grants totaling $600,000 in funding for innovative research projects.

The Pablove Foundation has regular fundraising events in Milwaukee – as well as around the United States – and will have its fifth annual benefit concert at Turner Hall on Saturday, Jan. 18.

The event will feature the Benjamins, Alligator Gun and Subside. The cost is $15 for adults and $10 for kids.

"We are so grateful for the love and support Milwaukee has always given us. I wish I could make this year's show in person – it's a pop-punk reunion dream," says Thrailkill.

We recently caught up with Thrailkill and talked about Pablo, Pablove and the lack of great Sazeracs outside of New Orleans.

OMC: How did you meet your husband, Jeff, considering you were in New Orleans and he was in Milwaukee?

JT: I first "met" him over the phone. He was still living in Milwaukee and managing Citizen King in the '90s and I was the executive producer of a music video for the band. I was unable to come to Milwaukee for the shoot so we talked over the phone instead.

A couple of years later, after he had moved to Los Angeles full-time, we ran into each other on another music video for a different band he was managing. We were friends first. I was always trying to set him up on dates.

One day he finally worked up the courage to ask me out and the rest is history. We eloped to Big Sur with our kids and are going on our 10-year anniversary next month.

OMC: The Pablove Foundation has other Milwaukee connections, too, right?

JT: Yes, Pablove's community affairs director, Megan McMillan, grew up in Germantown and operations manager Megan Berardi taught at Pius High School through a service learning program after college.

Pablove has also funded research at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin / Medical College of Wisconsin. Dr. Monica Thakar is instituting a clinical trial there right now that we funded. It is a very promising project that we are honored and proud to support it.

OMC: When was Pablo diagnosed and with what form of cancer? How long did he fight cancer?

JT: Pablo was diagnosed with cancer in 2008 – on Jeff's birthday, actually. Jeff was getting Pablo ready for a birthday dinner out when he noticed a lump on his tummy. Four-year-old boys have bumps and bruises all the time, and he seemed in perfect health, so we could have never imagined what was about to hit us.

After an overnight in the Children's Hospital Los Angeles emergency room we heard the words no parent ever wants to hear: "your child has cancer." Pablo was diagnosed with bilateral Wilms Tumor, a very rare kidney cancer that mostly occurs in children under 6 years of age.

Bilateral means he had tumors on both kidneys. Although Wilms Tumor can have a very favorable prognosis under certain circumstances, Pablo's case was far from simple. He underwent radiation, chemotherapy – hellish for Grady (their older son), Jeff and I, but Pablo had a resiliency I could never begin to imitate.

Then he relapsed, and we were simply out of options. That's when Jeff and I knew that we needed to help move childhood cancer research forward. It's simply unacceptable to be faced with a cancer for which there are no treatment options at all, especially for kids who should have their whole lives ahead of them. Pablo battled for 13 months. He passed away six days after his sixth birthday.

OMC: How did you make it through such a difficult experience? Was there anything that you did to make it more bearable?

JT: It would be a lie to say I don't have bad days. What continues to get me through it: the love from our friends and community, taking good care of my body and soul through Bikram yoga, and knowing that I am making a difference for other families like mine through The Pablove Foundation.

OMC: What was Pablo like in personality?

JT: Vivacious, clever, inquisitive – bubbling over with an energy and joy to experience the world around him. I'll never know what it's really like to experience cancer treatment as a 5-year-old child, but Pablo handled it with more bravery and positivity than I've seen from any adult.

OMC: When and how did Pablove come about?

JT: When Pablo was diagnosed, it was immediately apparent to Jeff and I that this community of childhood cancer families and caregivers needed help. No awareness, no money for research, lacking programs for kids and parents. We just didn't know what that was going to be, or ever anticipate what The Pablove Foundation would grow into.

The mission of The Pablove Foundation formed out of our own experiences as a cancer family. Funding innovative research on the underdogs – the rare childhood cancers – so no parent is told there are no options. Educating families through symposiums: you can only Google something so many times before you are in a constant feedback cycle. Parents need direct access to experts, and to each other.

And of course, helping kids with cancer just be kids through our photography program, Pablove Shutterbugs. Pablo was a burgeoning photographer. He'd snap pictures with anything he could get his hands on – my iPhone, PhotoBooth on our laptops, Jeff's old Blackberry. We cherish those photos now, and saw the impact that creative expression made on his life. Our personal experiences informed the impact we knew we needed to make in the childhood cancer world.

OMC: What aspect of Pablove are you most proud of?

JT: It's so hard to pick just one thing to be proud of. Every Pablove Shutterbugs graduation, every symposium where I see families having one-on-one conversations with the "rock stars" of pediatric oncology – those moments keep me pushing forward.

But I think that the research we fund makes me the most proud, and the most excited for the future impact our organization will have. Last year marked just our third year funding research, and we've already awarded over $600,000 in grants. These are the best and brightest minds, proposing outside-of-the box ideas that have the potential to transform how we understand and treat childhood cancer. It's an honor for Pablove to play a role in the next breakthrough.

OMC: Does Pablove ease your pain? Does the pain come in waves? Is it constant?

JT: Yes, yes and yes.

OMC: You have an older son, too, right?

JT: My son, Grady, is my first born. I refer to him as "The Teenager," although that nickname won't hold up for long because he will turn 20 this year. Time flies when you are having fun. He is the best, not-on-purpose comedian I know. I'll get text messages from him that make me laugh so loud I turn heads.

When Grady was 9, Pablo was born. He lit up our home, filled our lives with the energy that only a little boy can contain.

OMC: How did you decide on the name Pablo? I love it, by the way!

JT: Jeff and I chose the name "Pablo" because we simply love it. Also, we had narrowed it down to three and presented them to Grady and with zero hesitation he said, "Pablo!"

OMC: Any comment on the upcoming benefit concert?

JT: The concert will mark the fifth annual Pablove Benefit Concert in Milwaukee! Dear friends of ours, Scott Ziel and Doug Johnson of Pursuit Live/Yellow Phone Music Conference, and everyone at the Riverside Foundation and Turner Hall, have put on this benefit concert and have made a significant contribution to our mission every year since 2010.

OMC: Is running Pablove a full time job? What do you do when you're not running the organization?

JT: Serving as Executive Director of The Pablove Foundation is a full-time job, and then some. In my free time, I love to spend time with Grady, go to concerts, practice Bikram and cheer on my New Orleans Saints first, and the Pack second. I'm currently in search of the perfect Sazerac in Los Angeles. No one has matched the ones I can get back home in New Orleans … yet.


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