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Enjoy Magazine

Wings of Eagles Supports Families of Seriously Ill Children

08/07/2013 04:49PM ● By Enjoy Magazine
There is an old adage that says in spite of what we face in life, how we respond matters most in the end. Georgia Alvarez put this philosophy into action by establishing “Wings of Eagles,” The Joseph Alvarez Organization for Seriously Ill Children, after her young son lost his battle with a rare form of leukemia in 1991.

Wings marks its 20th anniversary this year and since its inception has raised more than $1 million to help Northern California children who have serious, life threatening illnesses, especially cancer.

“When Joseph was ill, we had a lot of support from our community and family,” says Alvarez. “When we went to different hospitals, we noticed people weren’t getting the kind of support we were. Some didn’t even know their neighbors. When we got our strength back after Joseph’s death, we decided we were going to start a nonprofit to provide the emotional and financial support not everyone has available to them.”

Although Alvarez and her husband both worked, she let go of her business to take care of Joseph, whose first hospitalization lasted 11 days. Losing her income changed the family financial status, but since most assistance programs calculate a benefit award based on the prior year’s tax information, the Alvarezes did not qualify.

For this reason, Wings does not ask for any family financial information. “We do ask if the family is receiving Supplemental Security Income or cash aid so we can advise folks that they might possibly qualify,” says Alvarez.

Every Wings family receives a monthly gas card. During extended hospitalizations, the organization pays for family lodging at Ronald McDonald House, Kiwanis House or the Sharing Place (the latter two in Sacramento). The American Cancer Society shares costs if a family requires a lengthier stay, something Alvarez understands all too well.

“I was at the Ronald McDonald House for three months when my son had a bone marrow transplant at Stanford Children’s Hospital,” she says. “He had the transplant the day before Thanksgiving and after he got out of the hospital he couldn’t be more than 10 minutes away. We didn’t leave until March.”

When a child is first diagnosed, Wings Director Terri Thunborg meets the family and provides them with a hospital care kit. “It’s designed to make sure a family has everything it needs for an extended stay,” says Alvarez. “Small things like lip balm are sometimes the most appreciated. When one of our kids was in the hospital, the treatment made his lips and skin really dry. We usually also include gift cards for gas and food.”

Wings fundraising events run the gamut from barbecues and country cook-outs to musical theatre, softball tournaments and family fun days complete with petting zoo. A local Harley Davidson owners’ group sponsors an annual poker run, and items donated to the Wings organization go to fundraising auctions.

Faith Henderson, whose son Christopher was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer at age 6, discovered the organization through her son’s nurse.

“When you’re told your child has cancer, it’s like your whole world just stops,” says Henderson. “The help our family received was more than just the funds to help out with our financial burdens; it was a lifeline to people that care about and understand children who have serious illnesses.”

At 2½, Christopher had a shunt placed in his brain and endured 15 more surgeries. Henderson says Wings gave her the courage to write an open letter about her son’s condition that led donors to provide the funding for a family trip to Disneyland before he passed in 1999 at age 11.

“When we were at the absolute worst time of our lives, Wings of Eagles reached out to us and made it easy for us to be connected to them,” says Nikki Farris, whose 10½-year-old daughter Grace lives with a brain tumor and unknown prognosis. “The emphasis on the whole family, and not just on the sick child, is fantastic,” adds Farris, who has three other children. “They have helped us pay for family counseling, which was costing $1,000 a month out of pocket.”

Alvarez would not have it any other way and says, “Joseph taught me compassion and selfless love.” • • (530) 893-9231