Three-year-old Ryan Encinas was battling a runny nose for over two months in 2010. His parents took him to many doctor’s appointments and tried different medicines, but nothing seemed to help. Then, over Halloween weekend, Ryan’s health took a sudden scary turn. He was pale, his breathing was labored, and he was increasingly lethargic. His parents took him to the ER, worried that he might have pneumonia. Shockingly, they learned that he did not. Ryan had a huge tumor on his left lung.
Diagnosed with stage 2-3 Pleuro Pulmonary Blastoma, an extremely rare, fast-growing, and aggressive pediatric cancer, Ryan received chemo every 3 weeks, each treatment running for 24 to 72 hours straight, and spent a total of 54 days in the PICU. Although the outlook was grim in the beginning, he rallied and survived. Two surgeries and 41 weeks later, he had his last dose of chemo on August 6, 2011.
Ryan is one of northeast Ohio’s Littlest Heroes.
The Littlest Heroes organization has been operating for seventeen years and is headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio. The group works with and provides emergency financial assistance to over 300 families, just like Ryan’s, who are seeking treatment for pediatric cancer in Northeast Ohio.
Not only are these families forced to battle cancer, but they also must find ways to continue life’s normal daily tasks: they must go to work, pay bills, get groceries, and support other family members. These tasks, especially because they must be accomplished while helping a child fight cancer, are nearly impossible to handle alone. Fortunately, they can turn to The Littlest Heroes for help.
For families who need emergency financial support, for instance, assistance from The Littlest Heroes comes in several forms. Jon Kozesky, Executive Director of the Littlest Heroes, explains, “We work with social workers from the three main Cleveland Hospitals to be matched with families in need. We send money straight to the collectors. Having cancer is hard enough; helping with a bill is something we can do to support these amazing families.” Families in the program also receive monthly grocery and gas gift cards. “They are dealing with so much; just knowing that the groceries and gas are taken care of for that month can offer them some sense of peace,” Kozesky shares.
As vital as that financial assistance is, The Littlest Heroes offers even more. Together with partners like the Cleveland Browns and Cleveland MetroParks Zoo, they offer enjoyable days out for the families. An excursion can be as simple as an afternoon of bowling and pizza or as extravagant as a private suite for a Cleveland Browns game. “Once a quarter, we want our families to not think about cancer. They can’t forget about it completely, but we do our best to help give them a day to remember,” Kozesky says.
Another way that The Littlest Heroes offers relief and fun for the children is through art programming. Together with partner Joann Fabrics, they bring art supplies into hospitals and encourage the kids to paint and create. The children’s artistic creations are then displayed at The Littlest Heroes’ fall art show.
The original artwork of the children will be displayed, and judges will award prizes to three young artists. While the artists keep their original work, copies will be available for sale. Greeting cards created from some of the paintings can be purchased, adding an artistic touch to the holiday season. As many as 600 pieces are currently displayed around Northeast Ohio.
Battling pediatric cancer is frightening. Facing financial hardship on top of that is something NO ONE should face. The Littlest Heroes wants to make sure that families aren’t facing those battles alone. For more information on how to get involved or donate, visit http://thelittlestheroes.org/donate/.
Featured image credit Flashes of Hope, all photos provided by Angela Bozic