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Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation helps Central Coast families coping with childhood cancer

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Seven-year old Isabella Ramirez has always been a high-energy, bubbly kid—the kind who never seems to get sleepy no matter how much she runs around all day. She's tough, too, always popping right back up after a fall without so much as a peep.

SEASON OF HOPE Santa Maria resident Isabella Ramirez, 7, was diagnosed with cancer in the spring of 2019. This year, the Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation donated hundreds of dollars' worth of Christmas gifts and decorations to her family. - PHOTO COURTESY OF  TEDDY BEAR CANCER FOUNDATION
  • Photo Courtesy Of Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation
  • SEASON OF HOPE Santa Maria resident Isabella Ramirez, 7, was diagnosed with cancer in the spring of 2019. This year, the Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation donated hundreds of dollars' worth of Christmas gifts and decorations to her family.

So her mom, Santa Maria resident Fabiola Ramirez, knew something was wrong when Isabella started lagging behind her siblings early last year, complaining about feeling tired constantly and of pain in her legs and head. Fabiola took Isabella to a doctor for a checkup, and in March 2019, Isabella was diagnosed with leukemia.

The following year was about as challenging as you could imagine. Both Fabiola and her husband, Noe, took time away from work to care for Isabella while she went through various treatments and recovered from surgery in the hospital for three months. Her hair fell out twice throughout the year, and her 9-year-old sister and 11-year-old brother took the news hard.

"It was really, really scary," Fabiola told New Times.

Isabella is fortunately doing better now. She has just six months of treatment left, Fabiola said, and the cancer appears to be in remission. But the hospital bills have since piled up, and when the COVID-19 pandemic hit this year, things that were already tough—going to the hospital, taking care of Isabella's battered immune system, school, work—got even more complicated. Everyone in the family has had to make sacrifices this year, but they won't be giving up having an amazing Christmas.

The Ramirez family was one of 53 in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Ventura counties to receive decked-out Christmas trees and gifts at the beginning of this month as part of the Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation's Season of Hope fundraising campaign. Donations to the foundation will go to helping kids with cancer like Isabella and their families, many who are currently battling cancer and other financial and health issues brought on by COVID-19.

In the two years that Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation has been working with the Ramirez family, Isabella received tutoring through the foundation's educational program, thousands of dollars in financial assistance, and various gifts, including $100 worth of wrapped gifts for all three Ramirez kids this Christmas.

"The foundation—it's always there to help us with anything we need," Fabiola said. "They'll always find a way to help us."

But according to Executive Director Corey Pahanish, the foundation is grappling with two conflicting trends brought on by COVID-19 this year: families caring for children with cancer need more help than ever, but many of the big fundraising events that bring in the bulk of the Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation's funding were canceled this year.

"When you have to cancel an event that traditionally has generated a larger portion of the funding that's been important for us to support families," Pahanish told New Times, "we've had to pivot to thinking outside the box."

So the foundation is just trying to get the word out—the word being that it needs the help of generous community members—as far and as loudly as possible.

To offer more help to families struggling to pay bills amid cancer and COVID-19, the foundation opened up additional funds to families already receiving financial assistance, gave out more than 7,000 grocery gift cards, made all its support groups virtual and doubled the groups available, and earlier this month gave out thousands of dollars' worth of holiday gifts.

Now the foundation, Pahanish said, is hoping to raise about $98,000 to continue offering emotional and financial support to families who were already in the most desperate times of their lives prior to the pandemic.

"And now," he said, "everything has been exacerbated."

Fast facts

Il Cortile Ristorante and La Cosecha Bar and Restaurant recently launched their Feed Paso campaign that aims to provide free meals to local homeless families and those in need during the holidays. Each time a customer purchases takeout from either Il Cortile or La Cosecha, the customer can donate funds that will go directly toward feeding local families.

• Hope's Village of SLO had to shut down its shower program for individuals experiencing homelessness due to COVID-19 concerns, but now the nonprofit is offering a new program called "Room at the Inn" for Christmas. On Dec. 24 and 25, Hope's Village is providing motel lodging to those without homes of their own. But first the organization needs donations. If you're interested in helping out, visit hopesvillageofslo.com/donate. Δ

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash wrote this week's Strokes and Plugs. Send tidbits to strokes@newtimesslo.com.

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