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Kate's cards: Child collects gift cards to help families of kids with cancer
Kate McRae has battled brain cancer since she was 5. At Christmas, she collects gift cards to help other families. Here, she cuddles her dog, Patrick. - photo by Lois M Collins
Kate McRae, 11, was diagnosed half her lifetime ago with an aggressive brain tumor. Since then, she's undergone two major brain surgeries, had numerous central lines placed, been the subject of close to 50 MRIs, had more than 30 rounds of chemotherapy, received a stem cell transplant and endured about 12 weeks of radiation.

The years-long medical odyssey has made the girl and her family, who now live in Cucamonga, California, extraordinarily aware of some of the universal challenges with which families who spend a lot of time in hospitals must cope.

"We started that first Christmas, December 2009. Her birthday is Dec. 26," said Holly McRae, Kate's mom. "We knew Christmas was coming, her birthday was coming and she was very sick; she was going to be in the hospital. And it was also flu season, so we knew we would not be together as a family. We were heartsick over all of it and wondered, would we have more Christmases together? What would we do?"

The family figured other families were in the same situation, struggling with travel costs and time issues and being available to their other children while being present with the child who's sick. They saw the cost of eating at the hospital all the time or grabbing food while rushing between appointments, among other things. Helping other families facing those challenges would be a way to honor and celebrate their Kate.

They decided raising money to buy gift cards would be a simple solution to cover those costs.

Kate's Crazy Christmas gift card drive is an example of one family seeing a need up close and tackling it directly. It's as simple and complicated as spotting a gap and filling it. That happens all over the country during the holidays, from West High School in Salt Lake City, which partially funds its family resource center with a "$10,000 in 10 Minutes" money-raising challenge, to families that pack hygiene packets for those who stay at homeless shelters.

Uncomplicated solutions

That first year Kate was in the hospital, the McRaes spread the word that lots of families that had a kid battling brain cancer could use some help with gas, with food, with things for the other children in the family. Gift cards seemed like an easy way to meet needs. The community response where they lived at the time, Phoenix, Arizona, was tremendous.

The McRae family which also includes Kate's dad, Aaron, brother Will, 10, and sister Olivia, 13 changes the gift card drive a little every year as the effort grows. For a while, they distributed all the gift cards at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. Most cards still go there, because it's a huge hospital where many families are served, but people also nominate children in other states, and the network both donors and recipients is growing.

Recipients fill out applications showing what they're going through and what they could use, then the McRaes try to match it up. It's now possible to donate online, as well, and they work through a foundation to match need with solution. People can either donate money or mail in gift cards.

Holly McRae said they try to help those with deep financial need, families facing a new diagnosis and those with end-of-life crises and expenses. They hope to give families about $1,000 in cards each for various needs.

People in 30 states participated last year, Holly McRae said, and they've already raised $52,000 this year.

"On Wednesday, Kate was able to hand-deliver one of the packages to a young, gracious girl fighting a similar cancer. She was poised and courteous as Kate leaned in close, due to the girl's loss of vision from cancer. It's just her and her mom, fighting this. Little extra resource, a vicious disease, long bus rides to the hospital for treatments, dad and brother living in another country," Holly McRae wrote on a recent CaringBridge blog. "Oh, thank you that we could hand them something. It felt little in light of their fight, but it was something that met a very real need."

Helping, your way

It doesn't always take a personal crisis to identify needs in your community. Sometimes, it's as simple as telling friends you're interested in doing something and asking for suggestions. That's how Linda Lyman first got involved with literacy efforts in the Denver area, where she's been a volunteer for almost a decade. During the holidays, they go a step further and provide some help with gifts to those they serve who need it.

Identifying what is important to you may provide direction that will be particularly meaningful when it comes to meeting needs. Love kids? Worried about literacy? Remember being hungry as a kid? Those are all needs that volunteers can help meet, and there are already programs in place in many communities that would love to have some help.

In every community, there are low-income families, senior citizens and adults with disabilities residing in nursing homes, youths in custody and refugee families who could use some gifts or a visit.

An online search can yield ways to connect with basic efforts like community food drives or Santa helper programs. Staff at local schools and churches know families with needs, too.

Carla Dillon of the Junior League of Orange County, California, says local Junior Leagues are a great resource for identifying volunteer opportunities. One of her chapter's early projects was creating a site called One OC, which includes a database of community needs and opportunities to meet them.

"People can sign up with their different interests and get alerted to community opportunities to help," Dillon said of the Orange County effort. "Knowing that we are making an impact and improving our community is a huge difference. It is so valuable being able to actively help community members."

And individuals and families, like Kate and the rest of the McRaes, use their own experience to reach out to others.

Kate is finally well enough to go to school for a few hours at a time as she feels up to it, despite being on chemotherapy every day and having MRIs every two months.

"She's still very much in the thick of it," Holly McRae says of the medical monitoring that has resulted from battling what's called a supratentorial primitive neuroectodermal tumor. Christmas and the gift card drive is hugely important to the girl.

The McRaes welcome any gift cards. You can learn more about Kate's journey and what's being called Kate's Crazy Christmas campaign on Caring Bridge website. Gift cards can be mailed to P.O. Box 8278, Alta Loma, CA, 91701. Or donations can be made online through Kate's Crazy Christmas page, hosted by the Steven's Hope Foundation.
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