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Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation Marks 10 Years of Helping Patients, Families

10th annual ball highlights the nonprofit's mission of providing financial and emotional support for children battling cancer

Ten years of service were elegantly celebrated at the Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation’s annual ball, honoring Tri-County families and community members and raising more than $300,000, at the luxurious Bacara Resort & Spa in Goleta.

The Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation, founded by Nikki Katz in 2002, offers financial, emotional and educational services and resources for those in need at every stage of cancer-related illness and recovery.

For more than a decade, the unbridled determination and courage of Katz and her organization have inspired the community to take action against cancer and helped pave the way to a road of recovery for hundreds of children battling this deadly disease.

In 2011, with the help of more than 300 local volunteers and a dozen staff members and physicians, the organization served 152 families and 644 individuals with 52 percent of the families residing in Santa Barbara County.

The celebration kicked off with live music featuring dozens of musicians from local high schools and Santa Barbara City College staging the Cocktail Hour Bands just before sunset on a patio adjacent to the main ballroom.

Jessica Mireles, an ardent supporter of TCBF, arrived at the soiree with her daughter Isa, 7, and happily mingled among the guests. Mireles grinned from ear to ear and the love pouring from her eyes was undeniable as she watched her child prance around the comfy outdoor sofas and lounge chairs among the other partygoers.

Mireles told Noozhawk that she was excited to be among friends and supporters of TBCF, an organization that she turned to for help in 2007 when Isa was 2½ years old and diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a cancer in which the bone marrow makes too many lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell).

“Isla underwent two years of chemotherapy, and it was the most dramatic experience our family has ever been through,” Mireles said.

She explained that her daughter was lucky enough to be diagnosed with one of the most common forms of leukemia and also blessed to be in a low-risk category.

“The cure rate for the disease is 94 percent, so we had a good shot that she was going to make it,” Mireles said. “But, nonetheless, you still worry that your child is going to be very sick. It’s not the cancer that kills you, it’s the chemo that kills you.”

Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation founder Nikki Katz, left, board chairman James Bechtel and Executive Director Lindsey Guerrero. (Melissa Walker / Noozhawk photo)
Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation founder Nikki Katz, left, board chairman James Bechtel and Executive Director Lindsey Guerrero. Click here for a Noozhawk photo gallery. (Melissa Walker / Noozhawk photo)

The foundation provides licensed, bilingual social workers to facilitate family support groups in Santa Barbara, and this unique program sponsored by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society ensures that families of children with cancer can support one another through group discussions and activities. Additionally, educational services are available for families to help address their child’s cognitive learning problems, which is a common side effect associated with chemotherapy. TBCF allocates up to $10,000 to cover the fee of neuropsychological testing and $500 for tutoring by credentialed teachers.

The organization also partners with health-care organizations in Ventura County, such as the Ventura County Medical Center Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Clinic, the St. Johns Cancer Center of Ventura County and the American Cancer Society, in providing emotional support programs and discussion groups for parents and arts-and-crafts activities for children with cancer and siblings.

In times of crisis, TBCF Bereavement Support Groups offer licensed therapists on hand to assist parents and family members in taking the critical steps necessary to begin healing during the grieving process.

Mireles admitted that even though Isla was insured, there was a point during the chemotherapy treatments that the insurance provider was unable to pay for the cost of anesthesiology administered to Isla before surgeries.

“The anesthesiology agency assigned to Isla lost their contract and were gridlocked in legal negotiations. So our insurance company wouldn’t cover the cost, and the charges ran up to $2,000,” Mireles said. “Teddy Bear came in and paid those bills for us, which was such a relief, but most importantly they gave us support. They encircled us with love, understanding and financial help. They made it so much more bearable.”

The organization ensures that families in need of financial assistance can apply for assistance from $2,500 to $5,000 to help with day-to-day costs needed for rent, medical expenses, utility bills, counseling and child care from the TBCF Direct Assistance Program.

Additional assistance comes in the form of free groceries, gas cards, hotel accommodations for immediate family members during emergencies, and up to $4,000 for funeral costs.

“With the help of Teddy Bear, Isa is now in full recovery and she’s in second grade at La Patera School in Goleta now,” Mireles said. “She is perfect, happy and the joy of our lives. I have a husband and four kids, and Teddy Bear has helped all of us. They are like family to us.”

Cancer survivor Melinda Marchiano, 18, who was standing several feet away from Mireles, stood proudly beside her family members and friends as she recounted her plight with cancer that began when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, in 2007.

In an effort to combat the disease that was rapidly spreading, Marchiano said she received four rounds of chemotherapy, three weeks of radiation therapy and suffered from side effects due to the aggressive treatment.

“I had a lot of problems eating and developed an emotional hatred of food that turned into an eating disorder,” Marchiano said. “It was the most life-threatening part of my whole journey. My family found a therapist, but our insurance didn’t cover it and that’s when Teddy Bear came in and said that they were going to pay for it. I was at the end, and that gave me hope. They literally saved my life.”

While in recovery, Marchiano, 14 years old at the time, began to write a book about her experiences that was published in 2009 and titled, Grace: A Child’s Intimate Journey Through Cancer and Recovery.

“I just started writing about what happened to me and then it transitioned into a way to share my story with other people who can be comforted,” Marchiano said. “They can connect with it and not feel alone.”

Marchiano has been cancer-free for almost five years and is a freshman at Pepperdine University. The pre-med biochemistry major said she wants to become a pediatric oncologist researcher after she graduates from college.

Despite her busy work schedule, Marchiano still finds time between her studies to give thanks for her life by speaking at various fundraising events for various organizations, such as the Children’s Miracle Network, the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life and the TCBF.

By nightfall, more than 300 people filed into the adjacent ballroom and settled down for the evening’s festivities, which included a live auction hosted by Sean Kelly, and an honoree award presentation by master of ceremonies Andrew Firestone, while enjoying a dinner of savory warm goat salad, hickory smoked filet mignon and soy glazed Chilean sea bass prepared by Barcara’s culinary chefs.

The room filled with hearty applause as 10 outstanding individuals who dedicated their time and resources to help the organization prosper over the past decade approached the podium to accept their awards. TCBF founder Nikki Katz received the Special Recognition Award, Tammi Cordeiro received the Guardian Award, Pat Weeks took home the Volunteer Award, Sgt. Michael McGrew, a 26-year veteran of the Santa Barbara Police Department received the Pay-it-Forward Award, and Earl Armstrong III, Keith Berry, Steve Cushman, Eloy Ortega, Thomas Parker and Larry Crandell each received Humanitarian Awards.

“I have been involved with the Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation and Nikki from the beginning,” Crandell said. “I was at a formal dance at the Coral Casino and I was asked to dance the jitterbug with this beautiful little 7-year-old girl. After the dance I was told that this little girl’s cancer was extremely aggressive and she wouldn’t reach her eighth birthday. We all knew she would never live to be 8 and she died at 7, and it just broke my heart. I will never forget her beautiful smile or the sorrow I felt saying goodbye to her that evening. Since that time, the Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation has continued to touch numerous lives by providing many dances and memories to children who need it the most.”

According to Cancer.org, about 12,060 children in the United States under the age of 15 will be diagnosed with cancer in 2012. Childhood cancer rates have been rising slightly for the past few decades, but with the help of the community’s continued support, TBCF vows to rise to the call for those needing assistance during their darkest hour.

“I think that the support the community gives this organization is so necessary because when your kid is diagnosed with cancer you are placed in this experience that you can’t even imagine the fear that goes along with it,” Mireles said. “And to have someone come along and say let us help your child, let us help your family and treat you with care and love is amazing. We are so blessed to have Teddy Bear in our community.”

TCBF graciously thanks all the 10th anniversary ball sponsors, including:

» Platinum level: Bacara Resort & Spa and Wells Fargo Bank

» Gold level: Melinda Goodman

» Silver level: Bank of Manhattan, Berkley Aviation and Michelle and Jason Nimela, Daniel and Katherine Eades, Keith Berry Real Estate, the Hutton Parker Foundation, Debbie and Dan Kass, Sarah and Jesse Lurie, Betsey and John Moller, Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, Jim Nigro and Rachael Sofranko, and Town & Country Event Rentals

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