Strength and Courage

Community comes together to raise $54,000 at Relay for Life in Ahwahnee

Tiffany TuellMay 22, 2013 

Last weekend nearly 300 community members participated in the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life event at Wasuma Elementary School, and together they raised almost $54,000 for cancer research, awareness, and for those fighting against the disease.

"Each year, our community comes together to help those facing cancer get well, to help those who have not been touched by cancer to stay well, to find cures for this dreadful disease and to fight back, so that our children and their children never have to hear the words, 'You have cancer,'" said Nicole Meeker, event chair. "Each of us has a reason to Relay. I relay to honor my dad, Ed, and to remember my mother-in-law, Norma. When a loved one is stricken with cancer it can sometimes cause a helpless feeling. The American Cancer Society's Relay For Life erases that helpless feeling and fills it with hope."

As always, the event was filled with many stories of hope, courage, determination and the will to never give up. One of those stories was that of the West family -- parents Alex and Kerri and their children Noah, 13, and twins Jesse and Emma, 9.

It was the West's fifth year participating in Relay for Life and fighting against cancer -- a fight they have experienced every day for more than six years. Not only is Alex undergoing treatment for bladder cancer, but last year they lost 8-year-old Jesse to cancer.

"She was a fighter," said Jesse's mother, Kerri. "She was a very strong willed, demanding little girl and always happy."

Jesse and her twin, Emma, were born Nov. 1, 2003. When Jesse was only a year old, Kerri began to notice that she wasn't developing as quickly as Emma. Jesse seemed a little clumsy and favored her left side. Kerri took her to a doctor but was told everything was fine.

A year and-a-half later, Kerri still thought something wasn't right, so she took Jesse to the doctor again. It was then that doctors discovered Jesse had an eight centimeter Atypical Teratoid Rapatoid Tumor in her right frontal lobe, and the following day she underwent brain surgery. Because of trauma to her brain, doctors had to do a second surgery a month later to complete the procedure.

After the surgeries, everything seemed fine for a little while. Then, in 2008, Jesse relapsed. A week after Jesse's fourth birthday, they found that cancer had spread to her spine. She underwent six weeks of radiation at University of California San Francisco. Kerri said as a result of radiation, Jesse suffered a stroke January 2009. That same year she started kindergarten at Coarsegold Elementary School, and the following summer, June 2010, Jesse suffered a second stroke. Afterwards, she was never able to speak, but she still went to school.

Then, in February 2012, Jesse came down with pneumonia. She was at Children's Hospital in Madera for the next four months and on June 13, 2012, Jesse died from pneumonia and a bowel obstruction after a five year, 10 month battle with cancer.

However, even in the midst of her illness, Jesse's spirit still shone through and the experience left Kerri with a new outlook on life.

"You also look at it like a second chance in life," Kerri said. "She (Jesse) gave me no fear. Before I wouldn't have jumped out of a plane, but now I would. It makes you appreciate life and take nothing for granted. It brought our family together and made us stronger."

Jesse's twin sister, Emma, is now a third grader at Wasuma. Emma loves to write stories about her memories of Jesse and the fun times they shared together.

"I love her, she's my twin" Emma said. "I miss her. We loved riding our bikes, playing with our toys and going to Bass Lake."

Last Saturday evening, Emma was able to honor her twin's memory with a mass Monarch Butterfly release. Kerri said that since Jesse passed away, butterflies have appeared at every special family occasion. Because of that, they know that Jesse is still here with them.

"It (butterfly release) was absolutely beautiful and it was awesome that my daughter (Emma) released them," Kerri said. "It (relay) is just such a memorable event I love it. I like to give that awareness and share my daughter's story and what can happen."

Kerri also shared a poem she wrote called "I Hope ..." The poem was about her experience as a mother to Jesse and by the end of the poem, it seemed there wasn't a dry eye around.

"No child (Jesse) should ever have to go through that. It just breaks your heart," said relay participant Kaye Bonillas. Bonillas was one of many people at Relay for Life to support the West family and help Jesse's memory live on. Together, they formed the team "Jesse's Butterflies."

Bonillas got to know the West family through her grandson, Tanner Bonillas, 13, who is friends with Jesse's brother, Noah. Bonillas has been participating in Relay for Life since 2006.

Bonillas herself is a cancer survivor. She was diagnosed with colo-rectal cancer right after the 2006 Relay for Life event. She underwent eight months of chemotherapy and five surgeries. Because she wanted to keep up with her bowling league, the Tuesday Morning Early Birds, Bonillas requested mediport chemotherapy. She also walked three miles a day a says her family kept her motived.

"It was a tough year, but my grandkids got me through it," Bonillas said.

When Bonillas told them she wasn't going to participate in Relay for Life after her surgery in 2007, her grandchildren told her that yes, she was participating.

"They said, 'Grannie, you can be a quitter if you want, but we're not quitting until we find a cure.'"

Bonillas hasn't missed a Relay for Life since. Yet, this year's relay event meant the most to her.

"It was the most emotional relay I've ever been to and the most exciting to me, because I actually got to stay the whole 24 hours and experience it all," Bonillas said.

20 caring teams at Relay for Life

"Jesse's Butterflies" was just one of more than 20 teams at the event. Oakhurst resident Larry and Jean Smith were part of Oakhurst Lutheran Church's Team No. 11.

"Our team has been with relay since it started in Oakhurst in 2000," Jean said. "Both of us have had it (cancer), members of our family have had it, friends have had it, so we just want to raise awareness and get people to go get their exams."

Both Larry, 76, and Jean, 73, are colon cancer survivors. Jean was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1956 at age 16 and Larry was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1999. Both underwent surgery and are now doing well.

"By being positive and living life to the fullest is the best way to fight cancer because stress is the biggest factor," Jean said.

As they have for five consecutive years (nine out of 14), the Oakhurst Lutheran Church team raised the most money for the cause by bringing in $11,000. The church has raised $210,500 over the years.

Locks of Love

There were a number of activities at the event, and one of them was the hair donation station. Retired hair stylist Maria Bates was on hand to cut hair for 17 people desiring to donate their hair to Locks of Love, a national organization that makes wigs for children who have lost their hair due to cancer and other childhood illnesses.

Bates, who retired from the salon business after 31 years, cut hair for the seventh year at Relay for Life.

Greg Miller, owner of Miller's Mountain Sports in Oakhurst, had his long hair cut for the third time for the cause, after letting his hair grow-out for about four years.

"This is an easy thing for me to do to help children with cancer," Miller said.

Mecca Ison, a 13-year-old seventh grader at Wasuma Elementary School, donated 11 inches of her hair and also assisted in the reading of Kerri West's poem, "I Hope ..."

"I cried after after reading the poem for the first time today and that's when I decided to donate my hair," Ison said. "I feel sick children need my hair more than I do."

Others contributing a minimum of 10 inches of hair to Locks of Love were Cassie Mararey, Richard McQuone, Gianna Defelice, Kacie Hoodson, Ellen Saunders, Irena Rosasco, Ellen Rosasco, Felicia Garcia, Reinna Garcia, Erin Asis, Hope Sanchez, Bethany Sanchez, Sonja McDaniel, Gabrielle Pagan, Mecca Ison and Dee Smith.

The public can still donate to Relay for Life by visiting

'I Hope ...'

The following edited poem called, "I Hope ... ", was written by Kerri West with the help of a bereavement group after she lost her 8-year-old daughter, Jesse, to cancer.

I hope you never have to hear the words "Your child has cancer."

I hope you never have to hear, "The prognosis is not good."

I hope you never have to watch your child prepare to undergo chemo, have a port surgically implanted in their chest, be connected to an IV pole, look at you with fear in their eyes and say, "Don't worry, mom, it's going to be okay."

I hope you never have to hold your child while they vomit green bile and feed them ice chips for lunch.

I hope you never have to stay in the hospital for weeks at a time, where there is no privacy, sleeping on a slab, your face to the wall, where you cry in muffled silence.

I hope you never have to see a mother alone, huddled in a dark hospital corridor crying quietly, after just being told "there's nothing more we can do."

I hope you never have to watch a family, wandering aimlessly, minutes after their child's body has been removed.

I hope you never have to use every bit of energy you have left, with all of this going on around you to remain positive, and the feelings of guilt, sorrow, hope, and fear overwhelm you.

I hope you never have to see your child's head bolted to a table while they receive radiation.

I hope you never know what it is like to take your child home (grateful but so afraid) in a wheelchair, because the chemo has damaged their muscles, 35 pounds lighter, pale, bald, and scarred, and they look at you with faith in their eyes and say, "it's going to be ok."

I hope you never have to face the few friends that have stuck by you and hear them say, "Thank God it's all over," because you know it will never be over.

I hope your life never becomes a whirl of doctors, blood tests, and MRI's, and you try to get your life back to normal while living in mind-numbing fear that any one of these tests could result in hearing the dreaded words, "The cancer has returned."

I hope you never have to hold down your child while a painful procedure is being done (like a bone marrow aspiration), because your extra set of hands will hold her/him more steadily and minimize the pain because they're still.

I hope you never have to unplug the machines one at a time, wondering if you're making the right decision, wondering if that miracle would've happened tomorrow.

I hope your child doesn't have to be fed through a tube.

I hope your child never has to stop eating food they once loved which now, because of chemo, tastes terrible.

I hope you never have to comfort your child because their sibling died.

I hope you never have to look into the empty bedroom where your child slept, dreamed, played and realize it is empty, oh so empty. Or look at the empty chair at the dinner table.

I hope you never have to watch children returning to their first day of school, to realize your child will never go back, and will never grow up.

I hope your child gets to turn a double digit, become a teenager, drive a car, graduate, get married, and have babies.

I hope you never have to watch your child take their last breath.

I hope you never miss your child's last breath because you couldn't get there in time.

I hope you never have to watch your child be removed from her/his bed, placed on a stretcher, covered with a sheet and rolled out of your home to an ambulance, and know she/he will never be returning to her/his earthly home.

I hope you never have to walk out of the hospital leaving your child behind, feeling like you have deserted them.

I hope you never have to hear your child say "Mama I don't want to go to heaven until you go there with me."

I hope you never cry so many tears, feel such heartbreak....experience such sadness or have to live through such devastation.

I hope you never have to place your child's death certificate beside their birth certificate.

I hope your friends and family are always there for you.

I hope you never hear people say "get over it, move on, life goes on."

I hope a cure for childhood cancer can be found so other children and families do not have to walk this road.

I hope to one day see my angel again.

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