By Lilly Nguyen
Julian Dunn liked cracking jokes.
Every time he’d go to a doctor’s appointment, he’d come with a little piece of paper in-hand with the latest. Doctors and nurses alike would gather with bated breath, waiting for Julian’s expert delivery before bursting into laughter.
Julian liked quoting episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants, too. Once, one of his nurses was leaving and saying her goodbyes when Julian repeated a line: “Don’t stop being adorable now, you hear?”
“It was something that Patrick would say,” said his mother, Andrea Dunn, referring to the starfish character in the animated TV series. “It was so funny. It caught her off-guard. She was speechless.”
That’s how Dunn, a Newport Beach resident, remembers Julian. Joyful, funny, spirited, always looking outward to focus on others — even as he himself was being treated for medulloblastoma, a malignant, cancerous tumor that forms in the cerebellum.
“He brightened up the lives of other people,” Dunn said. “That was who he was. He always thought of other people and he always wanted to have fun. He appreciated life and everything he had.”
Julian was diagnosed in 2008 and was in and out of the hospital for five years. Throughout it all, he had his family and his Legos, which were a way for the Dunns to judge Julian’s strength after surgeries and a way for Julian to pass the time while he was in treatment.
Julian died in 2013 at age 9, but Dunn and her husband, Richard, a former sports editor and writer for the Daily Pilot, decided to start a fund at Children’s Hospital of Orange County in his memory called Julian’s Lego Corner.
“Julian’s Lego Corner began at CHOC in 2014,” Brianne Ortiz, manager of CHOC’s Cherese Mari Laulhere Child Life department, said in a statement. “It helps bring joy, play and creativity to children and teens coping with serious and complex medical conditions.”
“With Legos, kids can design and build anything within their imagination. This program helps supplement our ongoing work to normalize the hospital environment for children and their families,” Ortiz added. “These Legos can be a comforting distraction during a child or teen’s hospitalization.”
In September, $16,000 has been donated to Julian’s Lego Corner, in no small part thanks to the efforts of the Dunns’ neighbors.
The Roberts, who along with three other families, own Sgt. Pepperoni in Newport Beach and Aliso Viejo and live just up the street from the Dunns, organized a fundraiser. Their daughter, Lauren, who is now a junior at Pacifica Christian Orange County High School, attended Mariners Elementary School with Julian. They were in the same class for third grade.
Sgt. Pepperoni recently wrapped up its third annual campaign for Julian’s Lego Corner. This year, all the proceeds from the pizza of the month and Sweet Things for a Sweet Cause, a campaign led by Lauren who bakes and sells desserts at Sgt. Pepperoni’s for year-round, went straight to the CHOC fund.
Jeff Roberts, Lauren’s father, said the ownership group this year decided to donate 100% of the proceeds from the September campaign because they’d felt fortunate that the community had come out to support the restaurant even as the pandemic continues and restaurants are forced to close, then reopen and close again.
“It’s our way of giving back the great gift we’ve received through this pandemic,” Roberts said. “We’ve really been able to roll through this environment because we’re pizza. We’ve had a decline in sales, but it hasn’t been detrimental.”
That’s the basis of how Sgt. Pepperoni operates, said Lauren’s mother, Erica Roberts.
“We’re a community-centric restaurant that was brought together by friendships and family,” Erica Roberts said. “Through those friendships, we want to help people where we can.”
But, it’s not the first time that the Roberts have tried to help — the first time was with a lemonade stand. Several, actually.
Lauren said she doesn’t remember specifically why she decided that she wanted to start a lemonade stand in 2009, but she remembers not understanding what was happening. She was young, just in kindergarten when Julian was diagnosed.
Erica Roberts said Lauren had gone to a musical fundraiser for Julian called “Jammin’ for Julian” with her father and said she wanted to help when she got home. She knew how to make lemonade and bake cookies because she cooked with Roberts. Her first stand made about $8. They eventually took the stand to Balboa Island, where they collected more than $1,000 for Julian.
“When you go through something like this, it really affects every aspect of your life,” Andrea Dunn said. “It really helps when you’re surrounded by support like that.”
After Julian died, Lauren said she thought her efforts were best spent on continuing to try to help. The Roberts organized Lego drives for donations and, now, continue to organize similar fundraisers.
“I kind of realized that it became a bigger picture of just how many people Julian brought in the community together and just because he’s no longer physically with us,” Lauren said. “He made such an impact on so many people’s lives. I decided I didn’t want to stop.”
Neither do the Roberts, who said they and their children are committed to helping support the fund for as long as the Dunns want.
“Kids can really do something so powerful with their voices,” Erica Roberts said, “but we [as parents] have to give them the opportunities to do those things.”
Lauren said she wants to encourage other young people to do the work, adding that the only difference between her and any other teenager is that she went out and started fundraising.
“This all started with a lemonade stand,” she said.
“Something that might not seem like a big deal can mean the world to other people. Something as little as a Lego box can totally change someone’s life or bring them joy,” Lauren said. “Get out there and act on what you intend and what you want to do.”