Homeless teen determined to make college dream come true

Photography by Melanie Bell

Nominated by Gulfstream Goodwill Industries

“Now I hug people!” Zoraida Martinez says brightly, leaning over to a visitor to do just that.

This is a new thing for her, considering “my old self (thought) hugging was too vulnerable, my soul connecting to your soul.”

Who could blame her? This 19-year-old has, since childhood, braved bullying and every imaginable kind of family dysfunction, “never having a stable home and just bouncing around” and experiencing repeated devastating periods of homelessness. In 9th grade, she was stressed with securing shelter when she should have been picking out homecoming dresses.

But this is “the new me,” Zoraida says, smiling and safe in a meeting room at the Senator Phillip D. Lewis Homeless Resource Center. Here, she has a small bed in a room she shares with two other girls. That room has been the anchor she needs to attain her ultimate goal: Becoming a peer counselor for kids who’ve struggled like her.

Before she can get to college, she must finish her senior year at Palm Beach Lakes High School. “A diploma can get me places a GED can’t,” she maintains.

“All odds were against her,” says Laura Waterman of Gulfstream Goodwill, who met Zoraida through the agency’s GoodLeaders program, which has supported her as she’s gone from no high school credits to a 2.1 GPA. “Most of us would be less resilient. But through all the drama, she said ‘I will go to school.’”

And to do that, she’s going to need a new place to live — an apartment with roommates. She needs money for rent for at least a year so she can focus on school. She’ll also need the means to get to school, including bus and rail passes, school, and hygiene supplies and more.

Zoraida believes that with a little help, she can take her painful past and turn it into a positive for herself and for others. “My point of view is that God sent me thought this path, that not everyone can go through,” she says.

Zoraida’s wish:

Zoraida Martinez is a 19-year-old high school senior who survived a turbulent upbringing and several bouts of homelessness to get a second chance at graduating with a diploma and a path to college, where she wants to study peer counseling. But she needs to move out of the Senator Phillip D. Lewis Homeless Resource Center soon. Zoraida needs rent for one year, bus and rail passes, and help with school supplies.

Nominated by: Gulfstream Goodwill Industries, Inc.

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Mom finds ‘sunshine’ in caring for daughter with cerebral palsy

Photography by Melanie Bell

Nominated by Clinics Can Help

Every morning, Evelyn Santana changes diapers, checks the breathing tube and gently strokes the cheek of her 20-year-old daughter Priscilla Diaz.

Diagnosed with cerebral palsy and Rett’s Syndrome as an infant, Diaz is unable to talk, walk or feed herself. When not on one of her constant doctor appointments, the dark-haired young woman spends her days under 24-hour care from nurses and her mother in the pink bedroom in their three-bedroom home off Georgia Avenue.

“I wake up every morning and sing ‘You Are My Sunshine’ and ‘Happy Birthday’ to her. Being disabled does not mean my daughter will not have a life,” said Evelyn.

Evelyn, 54, is raising Priscilla alone. Evelyn has been on disability since 1996 following an injury where she herniated her discs. She and Priscilla together collect about $2,100 monthly.

Priscilla began having seizures when she was about 1 year old. She has never spoken, and it’s unlikely she ever will be able to live on her own. She can only move her right side.

“I hate it when people look at her and say ‘Boo hoo, poor child.’ I know she is happy,” says Evelyn, placing a doll in her daughter’s arm as she sleeps.

The doll, like Priscilla, has a speaking valve in her throat.

“I made it. I took one of Priscilla’s old breathing valves. I sewed it to the doll’s throat,” said Evelyn.

Evelyn sees signs that her daughter is learning.

Priscilla brightens up when her grandmother walks in the room. Monthly visits from Mike the bug exterminator bring a grin. Priscilla’s collection of sunglasses is on the coffee table. “Blue’s Clues” on the video never fails to make her smile.

“If you stand in front of the screen while ‘Blue’s Clues’ is on, look out. She’ll yell to get you to move,” said Evelyn.

As Priscilla gets older, coping with her disability is getting tougher for Evelyn.

Priscilla weighs 77 pounds. Lifting Priscilla to turn her over to prevent bedsores or lift her into her wheelchair gets more difficult.

“I help Priscilla move. I can’t do anything for a couple of days,” said Evelyn, holding her lower back.

A new vehicle, electronic generator and wheelchair ramps would make helping Priscilla much easier for Evelyn.
The family vehicle now is a red 2003 Ford Windstar with about 122,000 miles. It needs tires and body work.

Evelyn and a nurse now must manually lower the ramps in the van. They then push Priscilla in her 50-pound wheelchair up and down the ramp. Then they shut the ramps manually.

A new van would do that electronically.

“It’s so hard to wheel her in and out of the van,” said Evelyn.

New metal wheelchair ramps installed at the front and side doors of the house would increase safety. The current ramps are old and unstable.

An electronic generator would allow Evelyn and Priscilla to stay home when a storm is approaching or strikes. Losing electricity would mean a shutdown to Priscilla’s breathing ventilator and gastric pump.

“We spent two days in the hospital during Hurricane Dorian. It was terrible. If we had a generator, we could stay home,” said Evelyn.

Watching her daughter sleep on a recent afternoon, Evelyn said many acquaintances warned her of the sacrifices she would make by raising Priscilla. When she and her husband were divorced, many told her she should consider placing Priscilla in an institution.

“Priscilla needs me. She will have the most fulfilling life I can give her,” said Evelyn.

Evelyn’s wish:

Evelyn Santana’s daughter Priscilla was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and Rett’s Syndrome as an infant. Priscilla, who smiles when her mother strokes her cheek, is unable to talk, walk or feed herself. She spends her days under 24-hour care in the pink bedroom in their three-bedroom home off Georgia Avenue. Evelyn needs new wheelchair ramps to get Priscilla in and out of her home. A new vehicle is needed to get Priscilla to and from doctor appointments. A generator would allow Priscilla and her mother to stay home during storms. They now must go to a hospital or shelter.

Nominating agency: Clinics Can Help Inc.

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Cancer death of loving nurse leaves two girls to build a new life with grandparents

Photography by Melanie bell

Nominated by Feed the Hungry Pantry of Palm Beach County

It seems cosmically unfair that Nikki Kangas was the one who was gobsmacked last summer, when she learned those back pains that had been plaguing her weren’t related to a patient-moving injury the veteran nurse suffered a while back, but the salvos in a battle her body was losing to an aggressive cancer.

After all, Nikki was the one who decided one day several years ago that no patient on her floor at Jupiter Medical Center would die alone and set up a rotation of hand-holders to be there with them.

For their families, she collected tiny strips of their last heartbeats and bottled them as keepsakes and recruited other nurses to do the same.

Nikki was a Disney-loving, Cardi B-singing, 37-year-old mermaid with people legs and blue- (or pink, or green) streaked hair.

She was a single mom with a night-shift job, who still managed to fill the world with pillow forts, all-night movie binges and give-em-heck bleacher battle cries for Jasmine, a 14-year-old soccer midfielder, and Luna, a 4-year-old princess.

Nikki was so effervescent you left her company feeling that much more alive, says her best friend and fellow nurse Jen Dennis, and her brother, Kyle, and her mom and her other siblings. If the dog, Odin, could speak, they’re pretty sure he — and the cat, too, for that matter — would agree.

Despite doctors’ warnings that a battle would be more painful than the cancer and likely ineffective, Nikki gave it a shot.

“She said, ‘I want to fight this. I want to show my girls I did everything to be with them,’” her brother, Kyle Geary, said.

But four months after her diagnosis, Nikki was the one whose hand needed holding.

Friends and family had hoped that Season to Share would give Nikki some ease, help her and her children through this tough time. But with Nikki gone, the focus has shifted to the girls and their new blended home and taking their first steps on a path without her.

Jasmine and Luna have moved in with their grandparents, Cheryl and Frank Rose.

Cheryl, 60, is a mom of six herself. Nikki was her oldest, growing up in Palm Beach Gardens.

And the Roses still have two of their own in the nest, Frankie, 17, and Heather, 16. Their family of four was in the midst of downsizing to a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house in West Palm Beach when Nikki’s cancer pounced and Nikki and her girls moved in.

Jasmine and Luna aren’t uncomfortable with the arrangements. When Nikki worked her three overnight shifts a week, Cheryl had the girls and ferried them to school, to practices and home. The aunts and uncles are close-knit.

The house happens to be the one Nikki shared with her best friend when they were both first-time moms in nursing school more than a decade ago. But retrofitting it for Cheryl, Frank and four children 17 and under has been a challenge.

“I had my own bedroom. I had my own bathroom. Now I have to wait to take a shower,” Jasmine said.

The three girls, Heather, Jasmine and Luna, will be bunking in a three-bed tower in one room. The sunroom out front is being converted to give Frankie the privacy of his own room.

Cheryl, who also gained custody of a rescued pit bull and a black-and-white cat when her daughter died — did we mention Nikki at one time wanted to be a vet? — is working on a can-do attitude, but little else. Her budget is stretched thin.

She used to make money cleaning houses while Frank repaired boat motors. They were getting by until Cheryl took over Nikki’s care, and shuttling all the kids to and from school and appointments and child care for little Luna fell to Frank.

“He’s lost out on so much work it’s been horrific,” Cheryl said.

On top of that, Nikki went on disability when cancer sidelined her and eventually her job ended. She and the girls were in line to get stopgap Cobra insurance when Nikki died. Without her that path to medical coverage disappeared.

“We need child care for Luna and therapy, too. I’m waiting for that mental breakdown of Jasmine’s. I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but it’s going to happen,” said Cheryl. “I’m in the maze of trying to get them insured.”

Transportation has become challenging as well. The couple has two trucks, which is good for hauling stuff, but not for seating a family of six. Nikki left a small SUV, but again, not big enough.

“We did two trips to the funeral. We’re borrowing a friend’s car that holds six to go to Thanksgiving,” Cheryl sighs.

Cheryl and the family are certain Nikki is watching over them. Cheryl is pretty sure her trickster, pet-loving eldest is the one who sent a stray tabby to curl around Luna’s leg not long after Nikki’s death — the scene was reminiscent of Nikki befriending her first cat.

Still, to have a daughter die is awful. To scramble to rebuild a life and the lives of your grandchildren, that’s more than Cheryl and Frank could have imagined.

“This was not figured in. None of it.”

Cheryl’s wish:

Nikki Kangas, a 37-year-old mother of two, died in late October, leaving her mom and stepdad, Cheryl and Frank Rose, both in their 60s, to care for her daughters Jasmine, 14, and Luna, 4. In the months of Nikki’s cancer battle, the Roses’ work fell off as they cared for their daughter and granddaughters. A top priority is covering the costs of therapy for both girls. The family also must remodel their two-bedroom, one-bath home to better accommodate a family with four children under 17. That includes covering the cost of the three-tier bunk, a bigger refrigerator and building supplies. The girls could use laptops for school as well as school supplies and clothing. The family would like to send Jasmine, a competitive athlete, to surf camp and continue with travel soccer team, a sport that can rack up four-figure costs. She is growing and will need soccer gear as well. They’d like to give Luna dance and swimming lessons and send her to summer camp. The Roses could use help with Christmas gifts, including bikes and phones for the girls.

Nominated by: Feed the Hungry Pantry of Palm Beach County

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Little Natali’s care after brain surgery puts a strain on her family

Photography by Melanie Bell

Nominated by Cancer Alliance of Help & Hope

In a cramped, run-down apartment next to Interstate 95, a cheerful menagerie of stuffed animals keeps watch over 7-year-old Natali Agustin-Gonzalez.

The 20 plush toys, most of them teddy bears given to her over the past year by doctors and nurses, are fastened along the top of Natali’s bedroom wall — a strategic spot because, well, space is scarce in the tiny home she shares with nine family members.

“She loves her teddy bears. It’s a comfort thing for her,’’ said Natali’s big sister, Mildre.

Comfort is a rare luxury for Natali and her family.

In early 2018, Natali was diagnosed with pilocytic astrocytoma, a rare, slow-growing brain tumor. She has undergone eight surgeries since last year to remove most of the tumor.

She has chemotherapy treatment every other week and relies on a feeding tube to survive.

Although doctors are optimistic about her future, she struggles every day because of a fragile immune system that requires her to be home-schooled and to wear a protective mask on visits to the playground at Howard Park.

But Natali’s physical condition is the latest personal challenge for the family.

Married for 21 years, her parents — Idalma Gonzalez and Roberto Agustin — came to the United States in 2001 and 2004 from Guatemala in search of a better life. In 2013, Idalma’s sister died while giving birth to a son.

Idalma and Roberto took custody of the sister’s four children, raising them as their own along with their own children — Natali, Mildre and Evy.

But Idalma suffers from a heart condition and is unable to work or care for the seven children. Roberto is the family’s sole provider from his meager salary as a landscaper.

Mildre, a 20-year-old single mom, had been contributing to the family’s income by working as a liquor-store clerk and cleaning a restaurant after hours.

But since Natali got sick, she quit those jobs to stay home as the family’s primary caregiver. She also drives Natali to and from doctors’ appointments.

Mildre almost always has a smile on her face as she dotes on the children. But she admits there are times when she’ll try to find a quiet spot in a back bedroom to shed a few tears.

“It’s tough. It’s a daily struggle for us,’’ she says, smiling as she wipes tears from her eyes. “But in spite of everything, we try to make it all work.’’
Their three-bedroom apartment is roughly 1,000 square feet. It has two bathrooms but only one toilet works. Several floor tiles are missing from the hallway floor.

Natali has her own room, a necessity because of the medical equipment set up next to her bed.

Mildre shares another bedroom with her 1-year-old son and three children.

In the parents’ bedroom, two other kids sleep on bunk beds next to a queen bed shared by Idalma and Roberto.

Cases of water, food and medical supplies share most of the apartment’s remaining floor space with the children’s toys.

Outside the apartment, the view to the west is a giant concrete wall that serves as a visual barrier to I-95 — the roar of the traffic, just 50 yards away, is easily heard from the front door.

“We really need a bigger place,’’ Mildre says, her eyes widening with excitement.

Aside from a new home, family would like to replace the 2006 Ford Explorer that has been used to take Natali to her treatments.

They also could use food, bedding and help with household bills.

Some day, if Natali recovers and the family’s situation improves, Mildre hopes to go to college to get a nursing degree.

Growing up, “I always wanted to be nurse,’’ she said. “But things happen. I had to put that off and not think about myself because Natali needs me.’’


Natali’s wish:

Natali Agustin-Gonzalez, 7, is fighting pilocytic astrocytoma, a rare, slow-growing brain tumor. She has undergone eight surgeries since last year to remove most of the tumor.

Although doctors are optimistic about her future, she has chemotherapy treatment every other week, relies on a feeding tube to survive and has a fragile immune system.

She shares a cramped, run-down apartment with nine family members. Her mother has a heart condition, leaving her big sister, Mildre, as the family’s primary caregiver, including round-the-clock care for Natali.

The family needs a larger apartment to accommodate the family and Natali’s special needs. The family could also use a new vehicle, along with food, bedding and help paying household bills.

Nominating agency: Cancer Alliance of Help & Hope

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Daughter’s sudden death leaves grandmother with four special-needs kids

Photography by Melanie Bell

Nominated by Grandma's Place

Autism elbowed into Maryann Jackrel’s life last year when her daughter, Stephanie, 37, died of an intracranial brain hemorrhage.

Suddenly, the rapid-fire-talking retired legal assistant and discount shoe business owner from Brooklyn was the caregiver of her four grandchildren. Their names all begin with A: Adryanna, 14; Alyssa, 8; Anthony, 7; and Alyjah, 5.

No assistance comes from their fathers. The children have ADD, dyslexia and other learning disabilities. The family gets by on about $2,200 monthly in Social Security and disability.

“They say it takes two parents to handle one special-needs child. Well, I’m just me,” says the red-haired Maryann, 70, seated at the kitchen table surrounded by toys, slippers, boxes of cereal, folded clothes and more stuff. Last year’s Christmas tree, still decorated, stands in the corner.

No matter. The Jackrel living room was a jolly place on a recent rainy Saturday morning.

Alyssa colored on the couch. Spot, a white American pit bull terrier with black spots, chewed a stuffed animal. Alyjah sang songs as he sprinted around the kitchen. Adryanna, visiting family in Boston, called to say hello. Anthony showed off his dinosaur collection.

“Brontosaurus,” the second-grader shouted, pointing to a sticker on the wall of the bedroom he shares with his brother. “Triceratops,” he said, smiling to the beast on the shower curtain. “Wow, I love dinosaurs.”

Home now is Maryann’s sister’s former house off Jog Road. When she was diagnosed with cancer, Maryann’s sister added Maryann to the deed. Maryann and the four children moved in after her sister died in February.

With a mortgage of about $1,300, Maryann does some financial juggling every month. Water and electricity have been shut off a few times. The busted microwave, stove and toilet in the master bedroom stay busted.

If only those were the only problems.

Alyssa steps into Adryanna’s bedroom and shows the pipes that burst five months ago.
“Water flooded the whole house. Neighbors helped us. They put in a new floor,” she says. The floor and trim remain unfinished.

The bedroom shower door is off the hinges. Window blinds don’t go up and down. Furniture is battered. Mold is in the ceiling. Closet doorknobs are gone. The brown lamination peels on the kitchen cabinets.

Then there’s the black, 2006 Ford Expedition that Maryann drives. Daily gas costs about $25 to and from rehab centers in Miami, Weston, Aventura, Jupiter and Palm Beach Gardens.
Maryann also drives weekdays to and from Mountaineers School of Autism in West Palm Beach, where the children attend class.

The brakes are going. So are the tires. The front driver and passenger windows are stuck closed. The interior is tattered.

If these household problems can be fixed, Maryann can concentrate on what’s important — her grandchildren reaching their potential.

Maybe Anthony’s passion for dinosaurs will blossom into a career in paleontology. Alyssa loves coloring and doing makeup. Alyjah fires a mean fastball.

”Maybe he’ll be the next Sandy Koufax,” says Maryann.

Adryanna does mentoring for children at the Mountaineering School. She hopes to be a teacher.

“I have an understanding of children with disabilities. I like helping them,” she says.

But those dreams don’t have a chance unless the family’s basic housing and transportation problems — and legal issues — are fixed. Maryann wants a lawyer to make sure her grandchildren keep their benefits when she can’t care for them.

Maryann is 70. The time to get things in order is now.

“What happens when I’m not here?” Maryann said.

Maryann’s wish:

Maryann Jackrel put aside retirement last year when her daughter, Stephanie, 37, died of an intracranial brain hemorrhage. Jackrel is now the sole caregiver her four grandchildren: Adryanna, 14; Alyssa, 8; Anthony, 7; and Alyjah, 5. The children have ADD, dyslexia and other learning disabilities. No assistance comes from their fathers. Maryann needs help to repair her Royal Palm Beach home, buy clothing and furniture and pay for legal assistance to assure her four grandchildren are cared for.

Nominating agency: Grandma’s Place Inc., Royal Palm Beach

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Can an iPhone hold the key to a blind man’s independence?

Photography by Melanie Bell

Nominated by Lighthouse for the Blind of the Palm Beaches

What is independence worth?

For Kevin Williams, 43, everything.

But Kevin has Type 1 diabetes, which has stolen his kidneys and his eyesight. The disease also killed both his parents within the past year, and left Kevin homeless.

You don’t get Type 1 diabetes from eating too many cupcakes. It’s an autoimmune disease that causes the pancreas to stop producing insulin, the hormone that controls the release of sugar into the blood. There’s nothing you can do to prevent it, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

Diabetes took Kevin’s vision over the course of several years. As his sight worsened, he had to quit working and driving. His world shrank. Six years ago, he was declared totally blind.

But this is one area where technology is being used for good, and one of the best tools for a blind person is an iPhone.

Kevin has kidney dialysis three days a week. His phone would entertain him with music.

On days he doesn’t have dialysis, Kevin goes to the Lighthouse for the Blind, where they’re teaching him to navigate the world better. An iPhone would be a lifeline.

For example, the Seeing AI app uses the iPhone camera to take a picture, decode it and describe people, text and objects in words. In the grocery store, it can read ingredients and descriptions, and when you pay for your purchases, it can tell you if the clerk gave you the right change.

Using GPS, it can tell you where you are and how to get home. It remembers people you’ve met and can tell you if the person standing near you is someone you know.

You know how good it feels when you put on your favorite jam and float away on a melody? Watching (or listening to) your favorite TV show? (Kevin likes ION TV.) Those simple pleasures are all Kevin wants. A place to live on his own (he doesn’t need much space), some furniture (his bedroom set belonged to his parents, and it’s falling apart but it’s almost all he has), basic household stuff and maybe some new clothes.

But it all begins with the iPhone.

“I just want to take care of myself,” Kevin said. “Being independent. That would make me happy.”

Kevin’s wish:

Kevin Williams, 43, is a Type 1 diabetic who is blind and has renal failure, which requires dialysis three times a week. When both of his parents died from complications of diabetes within the past year, Kevin could no longer afford the rent and found himself homeless. Kevin moved into a crowded, 975-square-foot house with his half-sister and her family. Kevin longs to live independently. He wants to learn new skills that will make his life more fulfilling. To do so, he needs an iPhone, which has the apps he needs to navigate the world. He also needs a laptop computer, a small efficiency apartment, furniture and clothing.

Nominated by: Lighthouse for the Blind of the Palm Beaches

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After fire, all young mother wants is a safe home for three children

Photography by Melanie Bell

Nominated by Guatemalan-Maya Center

Juana Hernandez remembers the wee hours of July 7 when she was awakened by one of her three children coughing.

The room in her West Palm Beach apartment was dark, and she was having trouble breathing. She soon realized that the room was ablaze and filled with smoke.

Terrified, she fled the apartment with her two youngest children, Jose Ichmai, who was only 5 months old, and Ismeralda Morales, almost 2. When they were safe, she ran back to rescue her daughter, Joacquina Morales, 6.

Firefighters arrived within five minutes, but Hernandez stood outside, helplessly, as she watched her apartment burn.

She was grateful she and her children survived, unharmed, but they lost everything — clothing, shoes, furniture, household goods. The fire was caused by an electrical short in the stove.

To this day, Hernandez is haunted by what could have happened if she had passed out before she was able to take her children out of the burning building.

Since then, the petite and soft-spoken Hernandez, 26, has struggled to find a place to live, and she and her children have moved three times. She has yet to secure a long-term rental and feels a sense of desperation about her family’s future.

A friend of a friend, Ana Bonillo, found a family in Palm Beach Gardens who let her stay with them for 12 days following the fire. That was the first of three temporary places.

Bonillo reached into her own pocket and those of friends, neighbors and church members to raise money for the family’s needs, such as clothing and diapers and a double stroller. The Guatemalan Maya Center helped by providing diapers, food, school supplies and used clothing.

On a recent afternoon, Hernandez, who does not speak English, cradled a squirming but smiling Jose in her arms. With Bonillo translating, Hernandez spoke about her baby’s medical problems.

Jose, now almost 10 months, suffers from flat-head syndrome, which could possibly lead to developmental delays if not corrected. He also needs surgery for a testicular defect. He must be taken to numerous doctors and specialists on a regular basis.

The constant medical appointments have made it difficult for Hernandez to work. She has no car, so she either walks, takes public transportation or depends on friends for rides.

Hernandez, who completed the sixth grade in her native Guatemala, found work in food preparation at a local restaurant and was paid $320 a week. However, by the time she paid a babysitter $36 a day, there was not much left.
Despite the turmoil, Joacquina, who attends first grade, is an excellent student and “a very smart girl,” Hernandez said.

In addition to housing, the family needs beds, a dining table and chairs, linens, pots and pans and all the other basics. Hernandez owns nothing except a few clothing items and a small television.

For now, the family is being given free but temporary shelter at a three-bedroom Palm Beach Gardens house already occupied by six adults and three children. It’s neat and clean and brightened by a birthday banner from a recent celebration. Two women are in the kitchen cooking dinner for the crowd. There aren’t enough beds, so some of them must sleep on the floor or on one of the two sofas.

Hernandez struggles to sustain her family every day. She doesn’t know what will happen next. She longs to regain what she lost the day her home was destroyed.

All she wants, she says, is “a good safe place for my kids to live.”

Juana’s wish:

Juana Hernandez and her three children, one of whom has medical issues, need a safe place to live. The family lost all their possessions in an apartment fire in July. Since then, they have moved three times. The family could use help in paying rent and furnishing an apartment with a bedroom set, sofa and table and chairs, kitchen items and other necessities and with basic expenses: diapers, food and other bills such as day care.

Nominating agency: The Guatemalan Maya Center, Lake Worth

To make a monetary donation, click the Donate button. Please do not mail cash or merchandise.  If you have merchandise to donate, please contact the agency directly.

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Toddler’s leukemia stresses family’s budget … but not their love

Photography by Melanie Bell

Nominated by Pediatric Oncology Support Team

Jennifer Cappel holds her sobbing 3-year-old son, Dakota, trying to console him as they wait in a small examination room on the campus of St. Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach.

“This is the worst part for me,” the mom says.

It’s not her son’s crying she’s talking about. It’s the waiting. These minutes she has to wait while the blood sample just taken from his little finger gets analyzed.

“The thing is, he doesn’t know what’s coming next, either,” the mom says. “He doesn’t know if we’re going home or going to the hospital.”

This has become a recurring drama in the lives of the Cappels of West Palm Beach.

There is Dad, Kyle Cappel, sitting in that examination room, already late for work. And there is big sister, Zoe, who at age 5, has had two years of feeling what it’s like to be the other child, the healthy one, in a young family that revolves around the leukemia her younger brother has.

On the outside, Dakota Cappel appears to be a rambunctious, carefree preschooler, so full of life and wonder. He proudly shows strangers his knowledge of animal names from his little picture book.

He is, for reasons unknown, fascinated by the number 8, and he’s already over Disney’s Donald Duck in favor of Darrington, a monster truck in the Nickelodeon “Blaze and the Monster Machines” show.

Can you sing along to “Sheriff Callie’s Wild West” song? He can.

But when he was just 16 months old, something sudden and terrible happened to little Dakota’s blood.

“It looked like Kool Aid,” his mother said. “You could see right through it.”

It was so low on hemoglobin that four blood tests came back with the erroneous result that the machine was broken. The fifth test detected the real problem: acute lymphocytic leukemia, the most common form of childhood leukemia.

Unlike adult-onset leukemias that go through a relatively long chronic phase before becoming acute, childhood leukemias become acute right away and require immediate treatment for survival.

Dakota’s lucky enough to have a mom who has a bachelor’s degree in nursing and was studying to be a nurse practitioner.

“If my wife wasn’t as educated as she is, we would have had more complications,” Kyle Cappel said.

So about half of little Dakota’s young life has been dedicated to saving it through multiple rounds of chemotherapy he gets from a port in his chest and through injections in his spinal cord.

He has lost his hair six times already, his mom says, which is why she is letting it grow long now. It’s just so nice to see so much of it.

The chemo has ruined his childhood teeth, and weakened his legs so much that he had to learn to walk again.

But he runs now, and as for his black teeth — well, that’s just another health care issue that will have to be addressed. But not now.

The key now is to keep Dakota from getting sick, especially with the flu season starting.

So, the Cappels try to live in a hermetically sealed world. At least as much as possible. They walk around with hand sanitizer, spread mats in their home and frequently disinfect them.

“We’ve created a control bubble in the house,” the father said. “We try to fill our house with love and let the kids be kids.”

And at bedtime, the dad asks his kids the same question: “How many hugs to you need?”

No mall. No crowded indoor spaces. The Palm Beach Zoo is OK, though.

“It’s outside, so it’s a good place for us,” the mom said.

Older sister Zoe would be going to school this year, but there are too many germs in schools. So Jennifer is home schooling her daughter. And if Zoe gets a sniffle, she’s sent to stay at her grandparent’s home.

“It’s hard on her,” the mom said. “We all hug Dakota when he’s feeling bad, but when she gets sick we don’t hold her.”

Little Dakota is still looking at another year of treatment, but Jennifer Cappel feels like one of the lucky moms now — a mom whose child has a kind of cancer that can be cured.

“We just figure we will get through this, and we’ll worry about the rest later,” she said.

“The rest” is the financial ruin that a costly childhood illness like this causes. The Cappels make too much money to qualify for Medicaid, so they’re on a health insurance marketplace plan with high deductibles and co-pays.

“When a middle-class family gets hit with pediatric cancer, it’s like a nuclear bomb going off in their lives,” said Barbara Abernathy, CEOthe chief executive officer of Pediatric Oncology Support Team, a West Palm Beach-based nonprofit that helps families like the Cappels.

Having private insurance doesn’t solve things either, Abernathy said.

“If they were on Medicaid they’d be paying less,” she said.

There’s a shot Dakota needs, one that is an essential part of his treatment, but it’s not covered by his insurance. And the only way to get it is to pay the money upfront to the drug company. No money, no drug.

“It’s $2,300,” the mom said. “But it’s not like I’m not going to give it to him. So we have to put it on the credit card, which already has $17,000 on it.”

She’s got about $60,000 in school loans, she said.

Because she has to stay home to take care of her children, the family has to rely on Kyle as the sole breadwinner.

He is the marketing director for Simple Path Recovery, an addiction treatment center in Pompano Beach.

“He’s the type of guy who comes in early and leaves late,” said the center’s founder, Justin Dunbar. “And he’d give you the shirt off his back.”

To make extra money Kyle has begun selling his tools online.

But it isn’t enough. They keep getting deeper and deeper in debt as their son fights his way through his illness.

“There’s no way they can get out of this on their own,” Abernathy said. “They don’t need a handout, they need a hand up.”

Dakota’s wish:

Dakota Cappel, 3, was diagnosed with leukemia at 16 months old. One of the shots he requires costs $2,300 a month, which is not covered by insurance. Dakota and his family need financial help to pay for medical bills and household expenses. Chemotherapy has ruined Dakota’s baby teeth, and he will need future dental care as well.

Nominating agency: Pediatric Oncology Support Team Inc.

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Teen wants to ‘be a normal kid again’

Photography by Melanie Bell

Nominated by Connor Moran Cancer Foundation

“I can’t wait to get back to school. I want to see all my friends. I want to be a normal kid again,” says Brieanna, 13, who is being home-schooled in the Port St. Lucie home where she lives with her parents and older brother, Braden.

Cancer thundered into the family’s life on March 24, 2017, when Brieanna’s mother Amanda picked her up at the bus stop after school at Lincoln Park Academy. Brieanna was a top student. Her daughter hadn’t been sick in five years, Amanda said.

“I saw bright red bumps under her chin. They were the size of gumballs. I knew I had to take her to the doctor,” said Amanda.

The next 24 hours were a blur at St. Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach. Biopsy. Blood scans. Fluid around the lymph nodes. More tests.

The diagnosis was rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer that forms a solid mass of cancer cells in muscle tissue. Brieanna was transferred to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis to receive specialized treatment.

Cancer split up the family.

Amanda moved to Memphis. Her husband, Adam, a boat technician at Marine Max in Stuart, stayed in their Port St. Lucie home with Braden.

“Cancer decides. You have very little choice in the matter,” Amanda said.

Twice, Brieanna was released from St. Jude hospital. Twice, she relapsed, the second time last October.

The family opted for aggressive treatment at St. Jude. Chemotherapy — 50 treatments — started. Brieanna’s blond hair vanished.

There were also 28 cycles of radiation, four surgeries, three port replacements and two lung biopsies. Cancer attacked her teeth. Dentists pulled out seven. They did two root canals. Every other tooth was filled because of decay.

The treatment worked. Doctors last month declared her “NED” — cancer lingo for “No Evidence of Disease.” She will be considered in remission if she remains cancer-free for five years.

Brieanna was discharged in early November from St. Jude. The family was thrilled when she walked through the front door.

But the welcoming was tempered when the family’s financial difficulties became clear.

Credit card debt had piled up from expenses, such as Adam and Braden flying to and from Memphis. So did the bills for home repair. There are car payments and mortgage payments. Amanda lost her income when she stopped styling hair to be with Brieanna.

“I tried to get my old customers to come back. But it’s been almost three years. They moved on,” Amanda said.

If those bills were paid, it would take a huge burden off the family.

“We’re rebuilding our life all over again,” Amanda said. She is Brieanna’s caretaker.

That includes helping Brieanna take two injections a day. She takes daily pills to prevent pneumonia and migraine headaches.

Brieanna spends her days studying online. She takes care of her two kittens, Mylo and Mia. She got the kittens from Furry Friends Adoption, Clinic and Ranch in Jupiter.

She plans to raise them until they are about two months old. She’ll then return them to Furry Friends for adoption.

“They were so tiny when I got them. I like helping them grow,” Brieanna said.

Brieanna’s wish:

Brieanna Elmer, 13, has been battling rhabdomyosarcoma cancer for more than two years. The Port St. Lucie resident has been in and out of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. She is now recovering at home. She has endured chemotherapy, operations and radiation. Brieanna’s mother quit her job to care for her daughter. The family needs help to pay for traveling back and forth to Memphis, paying medical expenses and auto and home repair bills.

Nominating agency: Connor Moran Cancer Foundation

To make a monetary donation, click the Donate button. Please do not mail cash or merchandise.  If you have merchandise to donate, please contact the agency directly.

100% of your tax-deductible donation is used to help local families this Holiday Season.

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