FARMINGTON — Parents with ill children often take their kids to larger cities for treatment, and the constant travel can tax a budget already stretched thin by medical expenses.
The Hope Children's Fund was created to defray these transportation, food and lodging costs. On Friday, Hope Children's Fund will host its annual casino-themed fundraiser, Heart of Hope, formerly known as Wings of Hope.
The program formed six years ago as the result of a Leadership San Juan class project, said Hope Children's Fund Program Manager Leslie Fitz. The San Juan Medical Foundation subsequently adopted it as one of their projects. Fitz said this type of support is needed because even though many parents of sick children are employed, there are expenses involved in treatment-related travel that are not covered by insurance.
"Many of the children we assist have cancer or heart issues, and others have complications as a result of being born prematurely," Fitz said. "It's so hard to have to make so many trips to Albuquerque, Salt Lake City or Denver, and can cause quite a financial hardship."
Eight-year-old Gabriella Gonzales and her parents are one of the families being helped by Hope Children's Fund. Gabriella was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in April. Because there is no pediatric oncologist in San Juan County, she receives weekly chemotherapy treatments and bone marrow and spinal tap procedures in Albuquerque. Her mother, Jennifer Gonzales, drives her daughter back and forth for the treatments weekly, while her father, Paul Gonzales, stays in Farmington to work and care for the couple's other two children.
Jennifer Gonzales said when she and her husband learned their daughter's diagnosis, doctor told them they only had five minutes to cry, because treatments would need to start immediately.
"We had no time to sit around and think about it," she said. "They told us not to make any plans for a couple of years, and then rushed Gabriella upstairs for the bone marrow and spinal tap (procedures)."
Jennifer Gonzales, who had been taking classes and working at the Farmington Public Library prior to her daughter's diagnosis, is no longer in school and is on extended leave from her job so she can care for Gabriella and get her to treatment. Although she stays in the Ronald McDonald House in Albuquerque — a facility near the hospital that provides lodging for a small fee for families of sick children — while Gabriella receives treatment, the weekly trips strain the family's budget. The Hope Children's Fund provides the family weekly gas cards to defray transportation costs.
"Getting the gas cards is huge for us," Jennifer Gonzales said. "I honestly don't know what we'd do without them. That means so much to our family."
Gabriella is now in remission, but regular chemotherapy treatments and tests will continue for the next two years.
"I never, in my worst nightmares, would have imagined all of this would happen to us," her mother said. "But we're just doing the best we can. There are so many others out there like us who also need the help."
The annual fundraiser was formerly called Wings of Hope because winners of a grand prize given out at the end of the evening would immediately depart by plane to Las Vegas, Nev. But the local airline has since dropped the Las Vegas flight route. Fitz said equally impressive winner packages, however, will be offered at this year's event.
The evening includes a dinner catered by Come to the Feast, as well as an auction. Participants can bid on items such as a $600 gift certificate for Sandia Casino, a 50-inch widescreen TV and an elk hunt trip.
"I think what's most attractive to people about the evening are the gaming tables," Fitz said. "While the gaming doesn't involve actual money, we will have dealers from Albuquerque there and (gaming) chips. We'll also have a very lovely dinner, followed by music provided by a DJ and dancing."
Fitz said in addition to raising funds to help the families already in the program, she wants to get the word out about Hope Children's Fund to others who might have similar needs.
"We want to show families that they're not alone, and that they don't have to do it all by themselves," she said.