Having a child diagnosed with cancer begins a journey unlike any other. It’s a road paved with fear and uncertainty within a maze of logistics. Often the specialized care a child needs is outside of a family’s home town, many miles and hours away. For families, traveling for medical treatment is felt emotionally, physically and financially; but helping to ease this burden is a special place known as OK Kids Korral, a project of the Toby Keith Foundation.
[pullquote]I feel my family is so blessed to have a place to come and rest. We feel safe and secure, and the staff is amazing.[/pullquote]Located in the heart of Oklahoma City and near several medical facilities, OK Kids Korral serves as a cost-free home away from home for pediatric cancer patients and their families. With its inviting, lodge-style atmosphere, OK Kids Korral offers 12 overnight suites, each sleeping up to five people, and four daytime suites for daily visitors. For children with weakened immune systems, there is a neutropenia wing consisting of four guest rooms. These protective environment rooms are designed to limit air infiltration from other areas of the facility and the outside environment through a specialized positive pressure HVAC mechanical system with HEPA filtration.
Indoor and outdoor play areas, a game room and a movie theater give children and families space to relax and spend time together. In addition, OK Kids Korral includes a gourmet kitchen, a family resource room, relaxation gardens and a reflection room.
Rick and Laura Roach know firsthand the struggle of battling childhood cancer. Their daughter, Reese, was diagnosed with an optic pathway brain tumor at 10 months old. Since her diagnosis, she has undergone three years of chemotherapy. Now, at age 4, Reese is having proton radiation therapy on a daily basis in Oklahoma City – three hours away from her home.
“The Korral is a God-send,” says Laura Roach. “I feel my family is so blessed to have a place to come and rest. We feel safe and secure, and the staff is amazing. It has helped my family so much financially. The cost this day and age is so expensive, and having a nice place to come and rest our heads is a blessing.”
The Toby Keith Foundation was established by the country music star and native Oklahoman, along with his wife, Tricia, and a collective of like-minded friends. The foundation’s mission is to encourage the health and happiness of pediatric cancer patients and support OK Kids Korral. Keith and his wife witnessed the impact of childhood cancer when close friends lost their young daughter to the disease.
“We are proud and fortunate to have Toby as our board president,” says Juliet Nees-Bright, executive director of OK Kids Korral. “He commits his time, talent and ideas to helping the foundation. We also have an advisory council who are invaluable in helping guide the day-to-day operations of the foundation and OK Kids Korral.”
According to the American Cancer Society, more than 10,000 children in the United States under the age of 15 will be diagnosed with cancer in 2015. It’s estimated that approximately 1,250 children younger than 15 years old will lose their battle to cancer this year. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in children, behind accidents, and in the past few decades, childhood cancer rates have risen slightly.
Since opening its doors in January 2014, OK Kids Korral has hosted hundreds of families. The staff, with the help of volunteers, facilitates a comfortable and encouraging atmosphere. Through the Chuckwagon Program, volunteers have the opportunity to provide a home-cooked meal for the families.
“We always need volunteers,” says Nees-Bright. “The Chuckwagon Program is our effort to feed the families dinner at least five days a week. We can always use more groups or individuals to help purchase and cook those meals. Also, we love having a volunteer’s smiling face at the welcome desk.”
For the families who stay at OK Kids Korral, it’s the simple things, like a meal and a quiet place to rest, that can make all the difference.
On May 26, Dana Cullum’s 17-year-old daughter, Katie, was diagnosed with leukemia. Three days after receiving her diagnosis, Katie had her first chemotherapy treatment, and she is expected to need treatment for two-and-a-half years.
[pullquote]I was not prepared for how we not only help people battling cancer, but those people become our friends, and we truly form a giant family who knows and feels the reality of a cancer diagnosis.[/pullquote]Dana Cullum says her first impression of OK Kids Korral was awe-inspiring but also heartbreaking, because services like this are needed. She says that being so close to the hospital means she doesn’t have to commute hours each day, and she’s near the emergency room when her daughter is ill.
“When we are here, it feels like home away from home,” says Cullum. “When my daughter is sick and can’t come downstairs to eat, I can take dinner to our room where she can feel comfortable. We have our own private suite, and the caring staff has helped us come to terms with this life-altering disease. Being here has allowed me to spend time taking care of my daughter and not having to worry about anything else but her. OK Kids Korral has made this new lifestyle a bit easier to handle, and without the Korral, we wouldn’t have had any place to go.”
While every child’s story is unique, OK Kids Korral creates a network of support joining together families who intimately understand what it means to live a life with childhood cancer.
“Before we opened our doors, I would talk about how we will save people time and money. I would go on to say that the Korral will be a respite for people struggling. I knew all of those things to be true,” says Nees-Bright. “But, at that time, I was not prepared for how we not only help people battling cancer, but those people become our friends, and we truly form a giant family who knows and feels the reality of a cancer diagnosis.”
Nees-Bright shares that some days are joyful, while others are indescribably difficult.
“We focus on the fact that the Korral gave our families a comfortable, hopeful place to call home,” she says. “One of our parents said that the Korral is special because some of our kids spend their last, happy days there. That comment has stuck with me and helps keep me smiling even when there are dark days.”