When 7½-year-old Samuel Helfand was asked what his favorite vacation was, his response was “Texas.”
This is unremarkable (your thoughts about the Lone Star state notwithstanding), until you consider one thing: Samuel and his family were in Houston so he could receive proton-radiation therapy at MD Anderson Hospital to treat his exceptionally rare form of cancer. But, during the two months they spent there, Samuel went to lots of basketball games — even, at one point, playing some one-on-one with Dick Vitale. Who wouldn’t call that a vacation?
Indeed, in the face of this profound challenge, Samuel’s parents, Heidi and Mark, have made “keeping it fun” their motto — chasing doctor’s appointments with the zoo, the skate park, mini golf, bowling, and baseball.
And the community has stepped up, too, with offers of fun that arrive seemingly out of the blue. The Santa Barbara Foresters came first, when Samuel was chosen to be a Hugs for Cubs kid. The program was started in honor of Eric Pintard — son of team owner/manager Bill Pintard and former Forester himself, who lost his battle with cancer in 2004 — and deals in Fun with a capital F. Samuel’s been spending these long summer nights in the dugout with the team — and regularly competing in the between-innings pie-eating contests. He’s thrown the first pitch and traveled to Dodgers and Angels’ games (and has the pic with Angels’ manager Mike Scioscia to prove it).
Samuel learned to surf — and overcame some fears about the ocean — at Surf Happens Foundation’s Camp Hana Hou. That comfort in the water will come in handy this Saturday, when he’ll be the recipient of another special honor: the Keiki Paddle. The yearly fundraiser is a spin-off of the Friendship Paddle, with one unique twist: It is run almost entirely by kids. The board is composed of kids; kids vote on who will be the beneficiary. While the Helfands have a couple of hunches as to who nominated Samuel, the news that more than 100 kids will paddle all the way from Campus Point to East Beach (that’s 11 miles!) in order to raise money for him — and show him a great time — was a surprise. And it presented another fun challenge for Samuel: He’ll paddle, too.
It all makes those weekly chemo appointments much less of a bummer. But, Samuel said, they’re not so bad. Once he numbs his port (which he showed off at school, earning “Cool!”s from boys and “Ewwww”s from girls), it goes quickly; afterward, he chooses a toy. (Yesterday, he got a water gun. Note to little sis, Julia: Look out!)
Heidi and Mark seem surprised at Samuel’s resiliency, but their focus on fun surely has something to do with it. After all, he’s a kid like any other. (“Just more doctors’ appointments,” said Heidi.)
And really, kids just want to play.
Approximately two minutes into our conversation at their home, he was bored. Who’d blame him? It was a sunny day; he wanted to go outside and skateboard. Heidi and Mark told him to wait; we continued talking while he chased the cat, showed me his collection of broken bats salvaged from Foresters games, pointed out that he didn’t just play “Dickie V” but beat him, and, eventually, lay on the floor in the family room, resigned to waiting it out. At one point, we called from the kitchen, “Hey, Samuel, do you know the name of your tumor?” “Myxopapillary ependymoma,” he called back.
And then — finally! — we went outside, and he hopped on his skateboard. The neighborhood kids were waiting, and he had a new trick to practice.
The Keiki Paddle takes place Saturday, July 20, with a celebration at East Beach following the paddle at noon. Everyone is welcome! If your kids are interested in being a part of Keiki Paddle, visit keikipaddle.org for info. For info about the Foresters’ Hugs for Cubs program, visit sbforesters.org. For info about Surf Happens Foundation’s Camp Hana Hou, visit surfhappensfoundation.org/Camp_Hana_Hou.html.