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Publication Date: Friday, December 13, 2002

The Kindest Gift The Kindest Gift (December 13, 2002)

By Diana Reynolds Roome

A little over a year ago, Nestor Arellano (then 28) was facing a bleak Christmas.

His mother, Juana Noguera, had been through surgery and chemotherapy for breast cancer, and was unable to work. Arellano found himself supporting her and his brother Omar, then 13 years old, on the earnings from his cleaning services. His family had no medical insurance, and the costs in medical bills and other expenses were crippling. His mother often needed to be taken to the hospital, and he frequently interrupted his work to call home. To make it even more difficult, he had lost precious income while struggling with a long-term health condition himself.

"It was really stressful," says Arellano. "We were always at a break-even point, living from check to check, making a lot of charges on the credit card." The family had come to the U.S. some years before on political asylum from Nicaragua. "We came with very little because our money was devalued, it was worth almost nothing. We started from zero. The only good thing was that we were legal."

By late 2001, the family was afraid they might be evicted from their apartment in Mountain View. It was a terrible situation -- facing severe sickness and possible homelessness at the same time. Their stress level was sky-high. "It was really hard for my brother, first me being ill, then our mother. He was afraid his mom might die," Arellano said.

Then something extraordinary happened. A social worker at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center told Juana about a program called FamiliesCAN, run by a Los Altos-based foundation that helps people with non-medical expenses arising from a diagnosis of cancer. Soon they were talking to Eduarda Francisco, program director of FamiliesCAN, who told them that the nonprofit foundation could help them, regardless of the income that Arellano had struggled to maintain in order to support the three of them.

Francisco asked what was their main worry, and they told her of their concern about being summarily evicted if the rent check was late. She quickly arranged to pay the next three months' rent, and the family knew they would have a roof over their head over Christmas and while Juana recuperated.

"The timing was perfect," says Arellano. "It's a horrible thing to be worried in the holiday season." It also gave him a chance to save up a little, so they would be more secure in the future. "Even though we didn't have a lot of gifts or a Christmas tree, we had a roof -- it was wonderful. For us, just being with the family is the main thing."

FamiliesCAN is the brainchild of Jacqueline Whittier Kubicka, and was founded just over two years ago by the Whittier family, who discovered from their own experience that incidental expenses of cancer can be very high. Travel and accommodations while going through treatment, disruptions to work patterns, and time or money spent on care often lead to even more pressing problems such as difficulty in paying basic living expenses. The foundation was based on the recognition that cancer affects the entire family, and that cancer patients need to channel their resources into getting better, not worrying about keeping their family together. To date, FamiliesCAN has helped around 150 families.

For Program Director Francisco, giving is her daily work, vocation and passion. She listens to people's needs and concerns and thinks about how she can fulfill them. She sends people to shop for a good quality wig when their hair falls out due to chemotherapy. She helped a Vietnamese patient buy his 17-year-old son a computer, because he felt so bad that he was unable to do it himself. She bought tickets for Great America for the children of a woman who was undergoing intensive treatment for leukemia, so they could enjoy a break from their all too grown-up worries. She buys gift certificates from supermarkets and stores so that people can buy groceries and clothes.

If a patient's illness becomes terminal, she helps to arrange a trip for them with the Dream Foundation of Santa Barbara. With great sadness, she helped a family pay for the funeral expenses of their 18-year-old son.

"The goal is to help them alleviate the stress," says Francisco, who is able to pay for immediate expenses such as food or gas money without making people wait. Some needs are longer-term and may not immediately come to light, so she stays in touch with people. "I try to get a feeling for things -- people often have more needs than they realize, or they don't mention them. It 's often a very sensitive issue."

One family, for example, had to refinance their house twice and nearly lost it, so the fund bridged the most critical time by paying their mortgage and helped them tap into other organizations that were able to help.

Bureaucracies, too, can be overwhelming and only add more stress to an already difficult situation, so Francisco also helps with paperwork and referrals. For Nestor Arellano's family, she requested and received extra help with rent from the Community Services Agency of Mountain View and Los Altos.

FamiliesCAN is probably unique in its focus on the many aspects of family life that are profoundly affected when someone develops cancer. Though it is flexible in terms of the kinds of help it can give, there are certain criteria that families must fulfill to apply. The patient must be an adult (18 to 65) U.S. citizen, and be receiving long-term treatment in Santa Clara County, even if not resident in the area. The patient must also have dependent children under 25, or be a young adult over 18 and still living with parents.

This year, through the Ronald Whittier Foundation that funds FamiliesCAN, Francisco has also started a mobile breast-screening program in collaboration with the Breast Cancer Early Detection program. She hopes to reduce the incidence of breast cancer for women who have no insurance and no money for screening mammograms and breast exams.

Now she is preparing to send out gift certificates to each of the 80 patients FamiliesCAN helped this year; in addition she will keep in touch with previous families with a Christmas card. It is those extras that make this private foundation's work so uniquely comforting.

As well as paying the rent last year, Francisco sent a $100 gift certificate to Juana Noguera, so she could buy some new clothes for herself and Omar.

"That was a really nice touch -- it was over and above," says her son Arellano, who adds that even if he paid back all the money, he could never repay FamiliesCAN for the difference they made in his family's life.

Of course, he is never expected to pay back the money, though his family is now much more secure, and living in a better apartment (at lower rent). But he hopes he will be able to help someone else in turn, either through FamiliesCAN or some other way.

"This Christmas is going to be better. But I will never forget what they did. What they gave us was way more than a sum of money."
For more information call: 650-948-8268 or go to:
E-mail Diana Reynolds Roome at


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