NAPLES — Wilfredo Rico sat building a puzzle with his wife Claudia beside the pool at the Naples Beach Hotel on Saturday, May 28. He smiled and took a long, slow, relaxing breath as he watched his children playing in the pool.
The youngest child, 3-year-old Juan David, clutched a beach ball that had quickly become his new favorite toy.
“On a trip like this, you enjoy life like you normally did before you had cancer,” Rico said.
The Rico family was one of 10 families invited to the Cancer Alliance of Naples Memorial Day weekend celebration at the Naples Beach Hotel. Cancer has touched the lives of all of the families, whether it be a parent or a child. During the weekend the families spent three nights at the hotel relaxing, spending time with their children, having moments alone with their spouses and letting their minds wander to images other than hospital beds and chemotherapy treatments. The annual event gives families time together at the hotel and also includes entertainment, babysitting, art activities, a day of boating and a trip to the zoo.
CAN Executive Director Marianne Larimer called the weekend “the heart of what we do.”
“The family weekends give our benefactors a chance to forget; to forget about day to day chemo and have fun,” Larimer said.
Throughout the year, CAN provides private, non-medical, services to individuals with cancer. They help financially with mortgage payments, rent, utilities, gas, groceries and other financial items.
“Imagine the terror felt by parents returning home from a chemotherapy session with their cancer-stricken child to find an eviction notice on the door, a final notice from the power company in the mailbox, and an empty refrigerator,” Larimer said. “Imagine a parent with a recent job loss due to the necessity of caring for their sick child. Imagine their hopeless feeling.”
These are the situations that cause CAN to step in and help. Through fundraising events and donations, they are able to help financially. They also provide family weekends and holiday parties in order for families to spend time together.
“While these people are in chemo, their job is not to worry about bills, they need to be as stress free as possible so they can get the best possible outcome from their treatment,” Larimer said. “This weekend is a time for them to make memories.”
The Rico family was taking advantage of this time to make memories. They attended the opening night concert together, Claudia had her hair cut and styled in her hotel room, they relaxed by the pool while Kids CAN members babysat their children, went on the Sunday yacht trip provided by the Freedom Waters Foundation, had a Sunday night date and went to the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens on Monday.
“The thing is, nobody knows the situation that people are in when they have illness in their life,” Rico said. “There are a lot of good organizations like CAN that support people and make their lives better. It is tremendously helpful because when I am in the hospital I am not working.”
When Rico enters the hospital in two weeks for a bone marrow transplant, he may spend four months there. This leaves his wife at home to worry about their children and the bills that need to be paid.
“These kinds of institutions like Cancer Alliance help a lot, no matter what race or religion you are,” Rico said. “Sick doesn’t call you American, Latin, white, black; whatever you are, you are sick.”
“Each family has their own story that involves their struggle, their weakness and their strength,” said Sonny Grech, a board member and volunteer of CAN. “CAN is happy we can make it all go away just for a weekend.”
Throughout the weekend, families could be seen laughing and joking with Grech. He is modest about his involvement, but talks about each family with emotion in his voice. Grech was instrumental in starting the organization, and also began and still runs fundraising events like the Fancy Pants Golf Tournament.
“Hey Sonny,” yelled Corina Chavez as she came up and gave him a hug on Saturday. Chavez is the mother of 3-year-old Itzel Chavez. The little girl with bright eyes who knows every member of CAN. Itzel ran around the grass at Naples Beach Hotel playing games with boundless energy. People would never guess that she was battling for her life last fall with infantile myofibromatosis (the most common fibrous disorder of infancy and childhood). The fact that Itzel is missing the lower half of her right arm doesn’t hinder her typical 3-year-old-energy. She automatically substitutes her left arm, or uses the portion of her arm that she has left, as if that is the way it has always been.
“She’s very active and acts like nothing ever happened to her arm,” Corina Chavez said. “Her brother is 5 and she is turning 4 but she acts older than him. She acts rough and tough and is very talkative.”
At the opening night part on Friday night, Itzel danced to nearly every song performed by the young vocalists of 1 Woman Productions. On Saturday, she swam in the pool with the members of Kids CAN who were babysitting. Her two siblings also swam in the pool while their mother was able to have her hair done and relax with her husband Jorge.
“We have been so stressed out, we needed the vacation and as long as I don’t have to clean and cook I am happy,” Chavez said. “This is my favorite part of the weekend, the (Kids CAN members) playing with the kids. Sometimes our kids need to be away from us too.”
Kids CAN is the teen-led portion of CAN. The Kids CAN team had 75 volunteers working shifts throughout the weekend to provide childcare. Their job was to watch the children and keep them safe, giving the parents time to themselves. Kids CAN has clubs in seven high schools in the Naples area. The main mission of the group is to raise money for scholarships. Each year they give college scholarships to high school seniors who have had cancer, or have had a family member touched by cancer.
“Last year we gave out $5,000 and this year we had a goal of $10,000 which we surpassed by several thousand,” said Lindsey Teeter, executive board president for Kids Can.
Kids CAN also helps CAN with fundraisers, family events and provides volunteers for facilities involved with pediatric treatment.
Kids CAN volunteer Leah Scire kept up with a very active Itzel Chavez in the pool on Saturday. She caught the little girl as she jumped, gave her tips on how to swim and watched as she played with the other kids.
“I like (Kids CAN) a lot,” said Scire, a Barron Collier High School student. “I like playing with the kids and letting the moms and dads relax.”
“Our families say that we have given them a gift, but they don’t realize that this is a gift for us,” Larimar said. “We can see the joy in their faces and they are not worrying about the next treatment.”