Walking for a hero: CHOC Walk teams honor lost loved ones

The CHOC Walk in the Park is more than a fundraiser and celebration of healing. For many families, this annual event is a chance to cherish the memory of a child. In solidarity, CHOC has created “Walking for a Hero,” a program to honor the children who have passed away and give their families special hero capes to commemorate the bravery that extended throughout their short but impactful lives.

The cape colors were inspired by Carter Ankeny, a former CHOC patient. One month before his 5th birthday, Carter was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a rare type of cancer. His family spent much of their time dedicated to Carter’s healing, and CHOC became a home-away-from-home. After years of treatment, Carter’s condition suddenly worsened.

Even on the darkest day of their lives, the Ankenys remained grateful for the support they received from the community they had built within CHOC.

“I remember how many people came to see us on the day he passed,” remembers Carter’s mom, , Jamie.  “Nurses, doctors, volunteers —everyone that we interacted with. They didn’t have to come, but they did. We’re so lucky to have such an incredible hospital so close to us.”

The “Walking for a Hero” program became one of the many ways the Ankenys celebrate Carter and support other families who have experienced loss.

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Carter’s family participate in CHOC Walk in the Park to honor his legacy, raise awareness for childhood cancer, and give back to CHOC.

“All we want to do is share our story,” says Jamie. “We want more people to know Carter’s name and more people to recognize CHOC. We also want to spotlight childhood cancer research, so we won’t have any more outcomes like Carter’s.”

Carter’s dad, Tim, agrees.

“We’re all for anything that keeps his memory alive,” he says.

During this year’s CHOC Walk, thousands of families will walk through the Disneyland® Resort with a purpose: some to encourage, some to remember, all to honor their heroes. And once again, we will walk in memory of Carter and other brave children and honor their memories with “hero capes” as a symbol of unity for the many families walking in memory of a loved one. Through this program, we’ll raise vital support and awareness so that more patients and families in our community can find the healing, hope and comfort they deserve.

Join the “Walking for My Hero” program and get your free hero cape.

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CHOC Family Honors their Little Hero Through CHOC Walk

For more than a decade, the Gomez family has held a special place in their hearts for the CHOC Walk in the Park. The beloved event is a particularly special time every year to honor their son, Robby Gomez.

Robby was born in 2001 at a local hospital with a rare form of laryngomalacia, a congenital condition where floppy tissue above the vocal cords falls into the airway opening when an infant breathes in, causing restriction of the airway.

Upon learning about his condition, their baby boy was quickly rushed to CHOC Children’s, where he was admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), and underwent several surgeries, including a tracheotomy, a procedure that opens up the windpipe (trachea) to allow a breathing tube to be inserted to provide an airway.

After a few weeks in the NICU, Robby was finally released to go home. He would occasionally go back to CHOC for care, but otherwise Robby led a typical life with little to no restrictions. As he grew, he was an active, vivacious little boy who participated in sports, played and jumped around like most children.

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Robby “Batman” Gomez

Tragically in 2006, at age 5, Robby died unexpectedly in his sleep from complications of his condition.

“Robby was an amazing and loving boy, whose strength and positive energy was infectious,” says Robby’s dad, Marty.

Marty and his wife, Julie, knew they had to find a way to give back to CHOC, since CHOC had been there for Robby and their family every step of the way.

“We’ll always be grateful to CHOC. The level of care and compassion that we received was extraordinary and we’re so thankful for the five years CHOC gave us with our son,” Julie says.

When Julie heard about the CHOC Walk, she knew she had to get involved. She formed team Robby “Batman” Gomez  in honor of Robby, whose favorite super hero was Batman. The team started off with just a few members – Julie, who is team captain, her mom, and two of Julie’s best friends.

Today, Team Robby “Batman” Gomez has around 30 members, and is one of the top CHOC Walk teams, having raised over $100,000 benefiting CHOC. This year alone, the team has already raised more than $15,000.

“We’re happy to do anything we can for CHOC. The CHOC Walk is such a special, unique opportunity that touches so many lives in our community. You can see the overwhelming compassion of everyone there, whether they are honoring a current patient or a child who has passed on,” Julie explains.

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Robby “Batman” Gomez

Julie and her friends and family have also held several community fundraisers benefitting CHOC over the years, including car washes, restaurant give backs, and most recently a golf tournament.

The Gomez family, including Robby’s brother and sister, Matthew and Emily, and their friends will always enjoy sharing their little “hero’s” story, especially around CHOC Walk time.

“Robby is our angel. He’s our guiding light, a beacon of goodness, and has forever left an impact on the lives he touched,” Julie says.

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Mental Health Staff Give Back Through CHOC Walk

Inspired by the care provided to patients and families at CHOC Children’s and the desire to further eliminate the stigma of living with a mental health condition, clinical staff members of the newly opened Mental Health Inpatient Center have formed a team for CHOC Walk in the Park, one of the largest and most anticipated fundraising events of the year. The team will join a crowd of more than 15,000 CHOC supporters for the Walk on Sunday, August 26.

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Select clinical members of the Mental Health Inpatient Center’s CHOC Walk in the Park team.

The team, Stomp Out Stigma, has already organized two fundraisers, with a third in the works, to support their fundraising goal for the Walk. The first two fundraisers were held at local restaurants, with a portion of proceeds going to their team. An upcoming fundraiser, at a local thrift shop, allows community members to drop off and donate household goods such as clothing, books and home supplies in exchange for denominations to the team.

The staff wanted to come together and form a team for the Walk, one of the largest and most visible fundraisers of the year, to further decrease the stigma associated with mental health.

“Mental health has a stigma attached to it, so we wanted to create a team to inspire others to decrease that stigma that can be associated with mental health,” says Kelsey, a clinical nurse in the Center and team captain of Stomp Out Stigma. “We want to promote that mental health is just as important as physical health, and by participating in this Walk as a team, we are helping to bring mental health into a new light.

The team also hopes their participation in CHOC Walk will provide further education about the new Center.

“We want the community to know that Center is a healing, nurturing environment that provides resources to families in need as well as a safe place for children to learn how to cope with their Mental Illness,” Kelsey says. “Mental health is important because it includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.”

The chance to be part of a patient and family’s healing process is what inspired Kelsey to pursue a nursing career.

“I believe that nursing is simply to give tender loving care while applying it to the everyday concept of medical care,” she says. “I have been a pediatric psychiatric registered nurse for five years. When I learned that CHOC was building a Mental Health Inpatient Center, I wanted to be a part of it since it is my goal to be able to give back to my local community.”

Since joining CHOC’s staff, Kelsey has been inspired by CHOC’s commitment to innovation.

“I’m thoroughly excited to be a part of an ever-changing, excellent organization where our strive is to provide innovative health care to patients and their families. Being the first Mental Health Inpatient Center for children under the age of 12 in Orange County, we are inspired to change the way mental health is viewed through the community as well as the way care is given to our population.”

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Keeping it in the Family: Why a Disneyland Resort Cast Member Joined the CHOC Walk

For Andrew Geis, participating in the annual CHOC Walk in the Park is only natural.

After all, Andrew credits CHOC Children’s with saving his daughter’s life, and the annual fundraiser takes place throughout his office – the Disneyland Resort.

Cumulatively, the Disneyland Resort has been CHOC’s largest corporate donor over the past 25 years, and the annual CHOC Walk in the Park is the hospital’s largest fundraiser, raising more than $32 million to date.

“I feel a sense of pride that an organization I’ve been with for 17 years has such a strong relationship with CHOC, which has done so much for my family,” says Andrew, who is part of the Disneyland Resort’s catering and convention services team. “The CHOC Walk is a small way that we give back and recognize the incredible care that we had at CHOC.”

Many Disneyland Resort cast members who have been personally impacted by CHOC participate every year. Last year, the Disney VoluntEARS walk team raised more than $90,000 for the hospital.

The Geis family’s relationship with CHOC began even before baby Sawyer was born. Imaging conducted while she was in utero revealed two possible heart defects, the severity of which wouldn’t be known until she was born.

The family started planning, and immediately after her birth, Sawyer was transferred to CHOC’s neonatal intensive care unit. There, further testing revealed a constricted aorta; an atrial septal defect (ASD), or a hole between the top chambers of her heart; and a ventricular septal defect (VSD), or a hole between the heart’s lower chambers.

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Andrew and his wife Michelle with their daughter Sawyer shortly after she was born.

Sawyer would need surgery – and she’d need it quickly, specialists told Andrew.

“I don’t think you’re actually ever prepared to hear that when your child is less than 24 hours old,” he says. “It was like a kick to the heart.”

Within days, Sawyer underwent surgery to repair the defects. Dr. Richard Gates, co-medical director of the CHOC Children’s Heart Institute, and Dr. Joanne Starr, medical director of cardiothoracic surgery at CHOC, fixed the constriction in her aorta, partially closed the ASD, and placed a band around Sawyer’s pulmonary artery to equalize pressure in the two sides of her heart and force the blood to flow to the lower half of the body.

While the surgery was a success, recovery in the cardiovascular intensive care unit was tough. There, Sawyer had an irregular heartbeat, which required the activation of an external pacemaker. Then, she also developed a blood clot. That same day, Sawyer experienced a three-minute seizure.

The clot and seizures were successfully mitigated, and a CT scan following the seizure showed no signs of a stroke or blain bleed. But Sawyer remained in the CVICU healing, growing and learning to eat on her own for several weeks.

During her stay, Andrew and his wife, Michelle, took shifts, alternating who stayed with Sawyer and who went home to their 5-year-old daughter, Parker. When Parker came to the hospital to visit, CHOC staff made a point to connect with her and ensure her needs were also met, Andrew recalls.

“My wife and I felt very strongly that it wasn’t only about the care Sawyer received, but that the entire family was taken care of,” he says. “That level of compassion and total family care was evident in all interactions with team members of CHOC.”

And finally, after 32 days, a 1-month old Sawyer headed home to join her family.

Sawyer headed home from CHOC
After spending just over the first month of her life at CHOC Children’s, Sawyer was finally able to go home.

During their time at CHOC Children’s Hospital, the Geis family became increasingly aware of the long relationship between the heath system and Disney, from Walt Disney’s early fundraising efforts before the hospital was built to the Disneyland Resort’s $5 million gift toward construction of the new Bill Holmes Tower, which houses the interactive “Turtle Talk with Crush” show donated by Walt Disney Imagineering.

“I certainly enjoy working for Disney and all that it represents, and knowing that Disney is affiliated with CHOC Children’s, which did so much for my family when we were in a medical crisis – I think is a unique blend,” Andrew says.

Just after Sawyer’s first birthday, the family participated in its first CHOC Walk, now a family tradition that will continue at this year’s walk. “Team Sawyer” will strut proudly on Aug. 26, joined by its spunky and sassy, 3-year-old namesake, who knows exactly why they walk.

Geis family at CHOC Walk 2017
The Geis family, including Team Sawyer’s namesake, at CHOC Walk 2017.

“Sawyer will point to her scar and she’ll say, ‘Tell me about my scar,’” Andrew says. “We’ll talk about her heart and what was wrong with it and what had to be done with it. ‘Who was with me in the hospital?’ she’ll ask, and we’ll tell her, ‘We were all with you in the hospital.’”

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How One CHOC Walk Corporate Team Generates More than Good Will

It started with a personal connection to CHOC Children’s; one that sparked a grateful family to give back through their business. Their intent was to raise funds and awareness for the hospital that did so much for them. Their efforts yielded more than they anticipated.

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Larry and Angela Worsham, operators of Chick-fil-A North Orange, brought their son Nathan to CHOC Children’s Hospital when he was 2 years old. He was diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome, a kidney disorder that causes the body to produce too much protein in the kidneys and urine. It can lead to swelling, weight gain and increased risk of other health problems.

Because of his condition, Nathan was hospitalized once, when he was in kindergarten. The now 14-year-old sees a CHOC nephrologist about every four months.

“The care Nathan received from the physicians, nurses, child life specialists and other staff when he was admitted to CHOC, and the care he continues to receive, is first class,” says Angela. “We are grateful to CHOC and are honored to support such an amazing place.”

Angela and her husband reached out to the CHOC Children’s Foundation after learning operators of another Chick-fil-A were CHOC supporters. They wanted to see how they could get involved.

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“Ever since that initial call from Angela, she and Larry have remained steadfast in their dedication to supporting our greatest needs,” explains Zachariah Abrams, assistant vice president, community engagement and special events, CHOC Foundation. “They’ve been amazing partners who are always open to new ideas. We are grateful for everything they’ve done.”

The Worsham’s support began with donating prizes for the CHOC Walk in the Park, presented by the Disneyland® Resort. They were also quick to meet requests for donating food for patient and staff events, which they continue to do. One of their favorite things, admits Angela, is providing a monthly dinner in the family room, serving the pediatric and cardiovascular intensive care units.

“It’s such an honor and pleasure to provide a little dinner break for parents and family members who spend their days and nights at bedside. And when we are at CHOC, we are always inspired to do more,” shares Angela. “I believe anytime any of us have an opportunity to serve others and act on it, we make our community stronger.”

That desire to serve prompted the Worshams to form, 11 years ago, their own CHOC Walk team “Chick-Fil-A 4 CHOC.”   Angela and Larry encourage their employees’ involvement with incentives, helping grow the team to nearly 200 walkers. Their team has raised more than $100,000. A contributing factor is Cookie Day, on which participating Chick-fil-A locations in Orange County donate proceeds from the sale of their chocolate chuck cookies to CHOC.

They are proud of that successful promotion and for their Walk total, but even more grateful for the friends they have met through their participation in the Walk.

“For us, personally, the best thing that has come out of the CHOC Walk is the relationship with the Hicks family, who founded Team Timmaree Rocks. We’ve walked with them for the past nine years and have become close friends. We’ve taken trips together, making amazing memories,” says Angela.

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In addition to forming valuable friendships, the Worshams have also developed business relationships and have attracted event and catering opportunities because of their involvement with CHOC. Their brand awareness in the market has increased, according to Angela.

“No matter the size of your company or your budget, everyone has the ability to fundraise and support causes we believe in. I do believe when you care more about the cause than what you will get out of it, you will benefit more in the long run,” advises Angela.

If your company or business is interested in supporting CHOC, call 714-509-7676.

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