SAN LUIS VALLEY — Being told that a child has been diagnosed with cancer defines the phrase “a parent’s worst nightmare.” The diagnosis alone can be devastating, and it is often just the beginning of a journey that is long, potentially terrifying and almost always disruptive to both the life of the child and the members of his or her family.
None of this is news to the volunteers with Colton’s Heroes of the San Luis Valley, and that is precisely why this small cadre of people have devoted themselves to helping families of children with cancer in ways that are very real and very tangible at a time when help is so often desperately needed.
That one-person-to-another kind of support has been at the heart of the organization from the beginning when, about six years ago, Pueblo resident Janelle Graham learned her two-year-old son, Colton, had been diagnosed with cancer.
“Sitting in the hospital sharing a hamburger with my husband because we didn’t have enough money with both parents having to take time off of work was financially hard on us,” Graham says. “We felt the need to help other families who were struggling like us.”
That experience was the genesis of what would become Colton’s Heroes, an organization started by Janelle and her husband, Brad, devoted to helping families in a similar situation. Colton’s Heroes, formed as a non-profit, soon attracted a number of volunteers, including Lynnea Hockaday, a friend of the family and, ultimately, member of the non-profit’s board.
“Being like-minded and having the same goals makes it easier for us to extend help to these families,” Hockaday says.
About four years later, Staci Shellabarger – Hokaday’s younger sister and resident of the San Luis Valley – learned of a local family experiencing a similar crisis. Her reaction mirrored the Graham’s. “We had to get that family some help,” Shellabarger says. What followed was made easier by the non-profit status already established.
In the two short years since Colton’s Heroes of the San Luis Valley has been in existence, the four-member board of the organization has helped nine families, all of whom have had children diagnosed with varying forms of cancer and one of whom lost their child to the disease.
Shellabarger, whose voice is surprisingly optimistic and bright given the somber task she has taken on, describes a very simple, straightforward process that begins with finding the families in need.
“A lot of times, people hear of us by word of mouth,” she says. “Other times, we’ll see something on Facebook about a fundraiser for a family or we’ll hear about a family that’s struggling.” However the connection is made, the initial meeting includes just a few basic questions to better understand the situation. “We’ll ask how old is their child, where the child is from, what kind of cancer do they have, do they have brothers and sisters. Just basic things like that to give us a picture of what’s going on.”
Support is then provided in that way the family determines is needed. “Sometimes, it’s a gas card preloaded for their trips to Denver,” Shellabarger says. “Sometimes it’s a card for them to buy food. And sometimes, they don’t know right then what they need, so we give them a preloaded Visa card for them to use as things come up.” The initial assistance is typically around three hundred dollars.
Shellabarger adds that the group always provides a bag of “swag”, as well, including stress balls, T-shirts plus other things. “And hand sanitizer,” she says, laughing. “We always add that.”
Colton’s Heroes is now trying to get the word out about who they are and what they do, to both families in need and to those who may be looking for a reputable, local group to support.
For that reason, they’ll be participating in the Ski Hi Stampede parade and are sponsoring the dance on Saturday night. And, as is so frequently the case with heroes, their message is clear and simple. “We’re here to help, if you need us.”
To contact the group, go to their Colton’s Heroes page on Facebook or call Staci Shellabarger directly at (719) 588-2561.