By Joe Hadsall
KANSAS CITY, Mo. —
Last Thursday’s trip was more of a chore than usual for the Vocelka family.
As winter decided to rear its head and throw down a blanket of snow and ice across northern Missouri and the Midwest, the Vocelkas — Ron, Sherry and 17-year-old Cooper — were stuck for an hour in their SUV on Interstate 49 in Kansas City, just miles away from Children’s Mercy Hospital. A trip that usually takes two hours took more than four, because of the weather.
Once Cooper arrived for his appointment, another delay surfaced: The doctor wanted to check some swelling in his foot. The day ended with the family driving back to its Carl Junction home.
But one chore made the trip worth it.
In the back of the SUV was a load of about $1,600 worth of presents for children and teens. They were donated to Cooper by students at Joplin High School, so that he could give them to patients at the hospital.
“We’re pretty low-key on Christmas, as far as exchanging presents,” Ron Vocelka said. “In the spirit of the season, this is something Cooper felt he could do.”
It took three hospital employees to haul in the load that the Vocelkas delivered Thursday. Boxes of toys included cars, dolls, coloring books, games and puzzles. Several of the boxes also had presents for older children, things such as earbuds, nail polish, teen magazines and movies.
“They have a lot of teens here, and they are harder to provide for,” Ron Vocelka said. “They don’t want the kiddie toys anymore.”
The donation was appreciated; though the winter weather chilled them, the employees said the boxes of toys warmed their hearts.
“We have a majority of patients who can’t go home for Christmas,” said Jessica Salazar, media relations manager for the hospital. “They have to spend it here, and these donations help us make sure they have a good Christmas.”
This is the second time Cooper has fought a brain tumor. The first one happened when he was 13; it was treated successfully with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
But this battle has been more difficult.
Cooper’s second confrontation started in September 2011, after a new tumor was discovered. He underwent the same procedure of surgery, chemo and radiation that month.
And again in April of this year, when the tumor was found to be growing again. And again in July.
In October, doctors told the family that they couldn’t operate anymore. The tumor couldn’t be cured, only slowed.
Cooper responded to the terminal diagnosis with a plan for a fundraiser. He would play guitar around town, and whatever tips he received would be used to buy toys for the patients at the same hospital where he was treated.
His first appearance at a Joplin Electric Theater event netted him $75. Because of the radiation and chemotherapy treatments, he hasn’t been able to get the energy for more playing time, his father said.
But word of his “Play It Forward” fundraiser got out. Thanks to a collection drive at Ron Vocelka’s workplace, Cardinal Scale Manufacturing in Webb City, the high school drive and other donations, the family collected about $4,000.
“He’s joyful that all that happened,” Ron Vocelka said. “He’s bummed that he hasn’t played guitar like he wanted, but his idea took off. He was able to do something.”
His efforts got attention across the country. Voices Against Brain Cancer, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to treatment and research, released a statement supporting Cooper’s efforts.
“Cooper’s story is one of inspiration, generosity and kindness,” said Clay Darrohn, a spokesman for the group, in a press release. “Despite his own diagnosis, his current focus on not only living his own life to the fullest extent possible, but also his desire to give back to the young cancer patients at the children’s hospital that treated him is nothing short of admirable.”
Ron Vocelka said the family will deliver a similar load of presents to the hospital for Valentine’s Day, then donate for the hospital’s needs as they surface — despite the family’s medical bills and recovery from the loss of a house in the May 2011 tornado.
The 351-bed hospital is seeing an increased demand for services; Salazar said inpatient and emergency visits have increased by 28 percent over the past five years. The hospital serves patients from birth to 21 and handles many advanced disease treatments.
Donations go a long way, Salazar said, and get used year-round at the hospital’s two long-term care operations and three clinics. However, most of its donations get replenished only around the holidays.
“We try to spread them throughout our system,” Salazar said. “We’re lucky to have patients who think of us at this time and remember what it is like. They want another patient’s Christmas bright and happy, and we’re grateful for them paying it forward.”
Cooper is now in the middle of another round of chemotherapy. With two more sessions to get in by the end of January, and an MRI to determine the treatment’s effectiveness, Cooper’s energy level will likely not increase. And because of the terminal diagnosis, the family has to face the possibility that this Christmas could be Cooper’s last.
But he feels good about his chances. He said in November that he plans to attend Crowder College and enter into youth ministry.
His parents said they keep up positive energy, and strong faith and attitude. That has been made easier with the success of Cooper’s Christmas fundraiser, his father said.
“This has been the highlight of our holidays, to see the kids at the high school get involved with the spirit of giving,” Ron Vocelka said. “The presents aren’t for Cooper. He’s just the conduit for directing it.”
COOPER VOCELKA suffers from a brain tumor — specifically an anaplastic ependymoma. It’s a relatively rare type of tumor, according to the Childhood Brain Tumor Foundation. About 200 cases are diagnosed each year in the U.S.
THE TREATMENT IS DIFFICULT, according to the foundation. A neurosurgeon physically removes as much of the tumor as possible, while working to cause no damage to the rest of the brain. Damage can result in permanent neurological problems. Radiation therapy is used to target the remaining cells that couldn’t be removed.