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A Story of Hope

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In today’s world, it seems almost everyone has known someone with cancer or has been directly affected by cancer. The rounds of treatment, additional monetary expenses, taking time off work and traveling to major hospitals to find the best treatment are just some of the experiences that can take a financial and emotional toll.

Peggy and Don Walters understood this all too well when their daughter Kelsey was diagnosed at age seven with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare cancer that forms in the soft tissue, connective tissue or bones. In 1998, Kelsey complained of an earache shortly after jumping in the pool at the start of summer vacation. “She was just finishing first grade,” recalled Peggy. As the pain persisted, Peggy and Don thought it was just a bad ear and sinus infection, but after three rounds of antibiotics and the formation of a large lump in her soft palate, they knew their life would forever change.
Kelsey’s diagnosis would propel them into doctor and oncologist visits out of town. As with most families in the Central Valley who’ve been affected by cancer, the Walters found that treatment would be expensive and require a lot of travel. Her doctors recommended UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital for regular rounds of radiation and chemotherapy. While in treatment, they met other patients and surprisingly discovered they were not the only ones from Lodi. Five families with children were also receiving treatment at the hospital. “The nurses were questioning why there were so many cancer patients from Lodi,” recalled Peggy. The Walters quickly established friendships, even coordinating treatment dates to carpool. “They became our family for nine months,” continued Peggy, thinking about her daughter’s length of care.

Kelsey needed nine months of treatment, including chemo and radiation, and the Walters were fortunate to be provided extended-care housing by a generous property owner in San Francisco. Peggy would stay there with Kelsey, but they also saw the hardship travel played on many of the Lodi families. Expenses of gas, food, lodging and loss of income due to leaves of absence from work added up for these families, and she and Kelsey were more fortunate than most.

Cancer Kids of San Joaquin, the Beginning
“It all started with a spaghetti dinner,” recalled Don.

Peggy’s father was a member of American Legion Post 22. Aware of the added expenses, he and fellow members offered to have a spaghetti dinner to help raise funds to offset the cost of travel, and the men offered the proceeds to all the Lodi families Peggy and Don had met. With the sale of tickets and raffles, the fundraiser was such a success that each family was able to receive a variety of items to help with their travel, including gift cards for gas, hotel stays, medical copays and living expenses such as groceries and food while driving to and from hospital.

What had started as one spaghetti dinner became an annual event. Later that year, Kelsey’s cancer finally went into remission. The Walters were grateful that their daughter would be able to carry on and live a healthy life, but the experience changed them forever. They knew that not all families would share the same story. Most kids win, some might relapse and some might not win the battle with cancer. This was the beginning of expanding their work to help other families. “I believe God allows us to go through a hardship so we can help others with that same hardship,”
Don expressed.

He and Peggy realized they had to keep helping and giving back. For the next 16 years, they continued that annual spaghetti dinner to support other families who were also impacted by childhood cancer. There was also the Stomp Out Childhood Cancer grape stomp fundraiser at Micke Grove Park, which for five years involved first responders and a host of volunteers, involving the community in raising funds for Cancer Kids.

Initially taking the name Lodi Cancer Kids, their annual event gained a great amount of support. To keep track of the finances and donations, the Florsheim Brothers Foundation, based in Stockton, served as their nonprofit, managing resources and continuing other events such as golf tournaments to raise funds. As the need grew, word spread and social workers assigned to pediatric oncology patients became aware of their organization. Peggy and Don were helping more and more families outside Lodi throughout the San Joaquin region. Recognizing the growth and the need, they became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation in 2006 with a new name: Cancer Kids of San Joaquin County.

New Ideas, New Goals
While the spaghetti dinner had been their primary fundraiser for 16 years, their friends LaNise and Leo Burke of the Tip Your Heart Foundation, who are also supporters of CKSJC, suggested they do a restaurant takeover. For the last ten years, Dave Wong’s Restaurant in Stockton has successfully partnered with CKSJC and has created a great level of success. In addition to restaurants, many community organizations such as Food 4 Less and other private donors have also helped provide support to CKSJC.

Today, Cancer Kids helps an average of 70 families annually, providing gift cards in the amount of $1,800 per family every six months while in inductive treatment. Cards are used for anything from gas and food, lodging, new tires for vehicles or any other expenses that may hinder the travel of families of children trying to receive care. “The illness is the biggest fight; the rest shouldn’t have to be so hard for families that must travel anywhere from Sacramento to the Bay Area for a hospital that provides pediatric oncology care,” Don asserted. Sadly, not all families have won the battle, but the Walters know that encouragement and financial support can help them feel surrounded with emotional support and love. “Each family struggles at different levels,” continued Don, who recalls a family who lost their child’s battle with cancer. Cancer Kids provided support to offset the cost of funeral expenses.

In 2024, it will be 25 years since that first spaghetti dinner. The Walters don’t know what the future holds, but as Peggy says, “As long as God enables us,” they will continue to carry on. And while their lives forever changed after Kelsey’s diagnosis, they realized the abundance of blessings arising from this change. Don and Peggy’s older son pursued the field of anesthesiology as a way to give back, and Kelsey, now in her 30s, provides encouragement through her story to families who are going through treatment.

Peggy and Don have also seen how this simple act of giving back has impacted so many lives. “As I meet with parents of these kids, Kelsey’s story gives them hope,” affirmed Peggy, who meets personally with each family that receives support from Cancer Kids. Today, Kelsey is married to her husband Andrew, and they are raising a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Kenslee.

Get Involved with CKSJC!
Why has Cancer Kids been able to help so many families? The organization has been and remains purely voluntary. Don and Peggy continue with their nine-to-five jobs and give a great deal of time to helping the organization thrive. “My paycheck is getting to meet with those families,” smiled Peggy. She loves to connect with the families who receive assistance from the organization. In the last few years, Cancer Kids has also provided scholarships to childhood cancer survivors who want to pursue college education.

As more families continue to need the support, Cancer Kids continues to grow. Tasha Mangrich experienced the blessings of their support. “When our daughter Avery was diagnosed with cancer, Don and Peggy supported us in every step of our cancer journey; before, during, and after her treatment,” shared Avery’s mom Tasha Mangrich. “They also gave us very needed emotional and financial support during this much needed time of our lives. Our family is eternally grateful to Cancer Kids of San Joaquin County.” Editors Note: The story of Avery and her family were the featured Inspirations story and cover feature of HERLIFE in October 2022. Don shares that anyone can get involved, whether it’s monetary or gift card donations. They are also looking for someone to help with their social media to update events and update their database system. If you’d like to donate to the organization or volunteer your time and skills, visit the Cancer Kids of San Joaquin County website.

Cancer Kids of San Joaquin County           
PO Box 1592 | Woodbridge, CA 95258 |