Their Own Place

 

By HongDao Nguyen

Mercury News

Thursday, June 24, 2004

 

Organization Steps in to Aid Cancer Patient - Gilroy Woman, Family Receive Help with Child Care Rent and Food


 

Mllie Del Rio's life looked bleak. About five years ago, her husband died, and shortly after the Gilroy mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. The cash-strapped family - Del Rio and her three girls - had lived in motels, moved into a migrant camp, then turned to relatives.

 

But they needed their own place, and turned to FamiliesCan, a Los Altos-based nonprofit organization that gives non-medical financial help to adult cancer patients. It gave them money for a deposit on their first apartment in years. "It was a dream come true," Del Rio said. "It was my place with my kids."

 

For years, FamiliesCan has stepped in when cancer patients -- preoccupied with issues such as death, physical pain, finances and family -- need help. Founded in 2000, it has helped more than 200 families with rent, child care and food. The dollars supporting the organization come from the Ronald Whittier Family Foundation, started by Ronald J. Whittier of Los Altos, who retired in 2000 as a senior vice president of Intel.

 

Jackie Whittier Kubicka, Whittier's daughter, recalls that when her father set up the foundation, he asked Kubicka and her siblings if they wanted to run a charity to distribute the money. If so, he asked them to asked them to come up with an idea -- fast.

 

"There was a pressure very quickly to startup a concept," said Kubicka, 43, of Portola Valley. When charities like that are set up, the "IRS expects you're going to start giving money away," she said.

 

Before FamiliesCan began, Kubicka had her own brush with illness when her husband was diagnosed with cancer. Medical treatment in Southern California left them with about $15,000 worth of non-medical bills for hotels and travel expenses, which they were fortunate to be able to pay off. At the time, her daughter, Anna was just a baby. The experience made her ask, "How does a family with fewer resources cope with that?"

 

That's when she came up with the idea of FamiliesCan, designed to help adult cancer patients with families cope with non-medical expenses -- because medical expenses were to0 expensive for the organization to handle. Their criteria were that the patient had to be receiving or would receive treatment in Santa Clara, to be a citizen of the United States and live in certain California counties, including Santa Clara and San Mateo.

 

The organization also refers patients to other places where they can get help.

 

Del Rio was given aid about two years ago, a break from years of one hardship after another.

 

In 2000, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which had spread to her spine, weakened her legs and hunched her back. The news came about a year after her husband was killed in an accident on the railroad tracks in Gilroy.

 

Before her husband died, the family had lived in a motel, paying about $250 a week for rent because they couldn't scrape enough money together for a deposit on a house or apartment. When her husband died, Del Rio didn't go back to work as a machine operator at Gilroy Foods because the symptoms of cancer had started.

 

The family eventually moved into a Gilroy migrant camp to take advantage of cheaper rent. As the cancer matured, her brother invited her and three of her girls, now 9, 15, and 16, to move in with him.

 

But Del Rio had disputes with him and wanted to move out.

 

She heard about FamiliesCan through another cancer organization, met with the program director, Eduarda Francisco, and within three days had $1,000 for a deposit on a Gilroy apartment. Later, the family received more money for rent, and Safeway and Wal- Mart gift cards. It added up to about$3,000.

 

"It was scary moving" into the apartment, said Ashley Mollinedo, Millie's l6-vear-old daughter because it was one of the first times the family had lived on their own without their father or in a community setting. "It turned out good," she said. They've since moved again to their current home, where they enjoy their first back yard. Rio has beaten the illness, but they're still in touch with FamiliesCan, which will take the girls and 60 other families to Bonfante Gardens theme park Sunday. The organization is focused on helping families not only financially, but also emotionally. To help get their minds off their problems, FamiliesCan has taken patients to events such as the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus and 49ers games.

 

Nancy Bowker's triplets will spend the day at Bonfante. The Palo Alto mother also fought and beat breast cancer. During that time, FamiliesCan helped fund the single mother's child care expenses and an aide to help take care of her. "It meant so much to me because of all the stress of being ill," she said. "Added financial stress was pretty hard to take."

 

If you're interested. For information about FamiliesCan, go to www.familiescan.org or call (6so) 948-8268.