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How a new bike helped an East Bay family struggling with leukemia

Contra Costa Times - 12/22/2017

Dec. 22--For Violet Gutierrez, raising two sons on the autism spectrum hasn't been easy. But in October 2016, her life got even harder: Her third child, 8-year-old Arianna, was diagnosed with leukemia after weeks in the hospital as doctors struggled to figure out what was wrong.

By the time the holidays rolled around -- between long, scary nights in the hospital and medical bills piling up -- she and her husband didn't have time to figure out what to get their kids for Christmas.

Then an official at her kids' elementary school stepped in, signing up her family for the Hayward Police Department's annual toy drive, which for 20 years has delivered gifts to families in need around the city.

Two officers showed up at Gutierrez's house a few days before Christmas morning with a bag full of gifts: jackets that the kids later wore throughout the rainy winter, pajamas that they still cuddle up in while staying at the hospital, and other toys like Play-Do, board games and card games. The family has played hundreds of hands with the Uno deck they received in the drive, the cards spread out on Arianna's hospital bed.

"My daughter was in and out of the hospital the entire holiday week, so it was a beautiful surprise," Gutierrez, 29, said.

The best gift was totally unexpected: a green bike with training wheels, a perfect fit for Gutierrez's 9-year-old son, Aaron. He had never ridden a bike before, and the family didn't own one.

Over the summer, Aaron decided he wanted to learn how to bike. He spent long afternoons pedaling around the family's neighborhood, first with the training wheels and then without.

Gutierrez remembers one of the first times Aaron biked without the training wheels, careening through the rolling grasslands of Coyote Hills Park under a wide-open sky.

He would lose his balance, stop, then try again. Aaron struggles with learning new skills and tends to give up easily, so "it was wonderful to see him continue even though it was difficult for him," Gutierrez said.

The family, enjoying the fresh air after weeks cooped up in the hospital, whooped and hollered. For a moment, it was like "everything else we've been going through didn't matter right then," she said. "What mattered was cheering him on."

When Aaron finally got the hang of it, "he was so proud of himself," she said. "It created a memory that is timeless."

Memories like those have been important to her family over the course of a very tough year. Before Arianna's diagnosis, the kids had perfect attendance at school, and Gutierrez worked as a therapist for children with autism -- a career inspired by her experiences with her sons.

But she left work when she realized Arianna could be back in the hospital for weeks at a time with little notice. Gutierrez now stays at the hospital whenever her daughter has to, sleeping on a bench beside Arianna's bed at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland.

The kids struggled as their world was turned upside down -- they "didn't completely understand what was happening," Gutierrez said. Small comforts like a bike ride or a game of Uno became even more meaningful.

The police department's toy drive has been going for 20 years and collects both used toys and kids' clothes as well as cash donations for the department to purchase new items. This year, the department started collecting donations in early November.

The department drive has received funding this year from Share the Spirit, an annual holiday campaign that serves needy residents in the East Bay. The grant is administered by the Contra Costa Crisis Center, and donations support programs of more than 40 nonprofit agencies in Contra Costa and Alameda counties.

In addition to about 100 families like Gutierrez's -- who are recommended as recipients by schools or individuals -- officers also bring clothes and games each year to Ruby's, a Hayward shelter for victims of domestic violence and human trafficking.

"It makes such a difference," said Sophora Acheson, director of programs at the shelter, which houses about 40 women and children. "They bring the police cars, and the kids love seeing the cars and the officers in uniform -- and the parents can pick out whatever they want."

Now, when Gutierrez's kids see police cars on the street, they remember the toys the officers brought to their house.

"It can change a child's day and relieve a lot of stress off of a parent," she said. "For us, it helped release us a little from the harsh reality of what is really happening."

SHARE THE SPIRIT

The Share the Spirit holiday campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, serves needy residents of Alameda and Contra Costa counties by funding nonprofit holiday and outreach programs.

To make a tax-deductible contribution, clip the coupon accompanying the print version of this story or go to www.sharethespiriteastbay.org/donate/

Readers with questions, and individuals or businesses interested in making large contributions, may contact the Contra Costa Crisis Center, which administers the fund, at 925-939-1916, ext. 408, or sharethespirit@crisis-center.org.

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(c)2017 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)

Visit the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.) at www.eastbaytimes.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 
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