7/4/2017 10:19:00 AM WATCH: Group helps families with sick kids feel normal A mom and son recall the support
Courtesy Timshel Tarbet Mekel Tarbet, a graduate of La Salle Prep, is now an Army combat medic serving in South Korea. His mother Timshel was helped by Candlelighters and is now president of the board. “For that short moment, you don’t have to think about the fact that you are dealing with cancer,” Timshel says of Candlelighter events for families.
Courtesy Timshel Tarbet As a boy not long recovered from leukemia, Mekel Tarbet pals around with college mascots at a party sponsored by Candlelighters, an organization that supports families with sick children.
When Timshel Tarbet was going through hell, a small group called Candlelighters helped her feel normal, if even for a few hours at a time.
In 2001, Tarbet’s 4-year-old son Mekel was diagnosed with a serious form of leukemia. The treatments were harsh. Mekel spiked a fever of 107 early on and medical staff told her to say goodbye. But Mekel recovered and by age 7 he was leukemia free.
As treatment was winding down, Tarbet had another son, Keenan. Having a sick child and infant son led to fear and exhaustion. Even as the years progressed, the dynamic could have impeded her little family’s wellbeing.
“You try to normalize life as much as possible,” says Tarbet, a parent at Our Lady of the Lake School in Lake Oswego and director of ethics and corporate accountability for Cambia Health Solutions. “But … you have this constant state of terror that your child is not going to be ok. You are doing everything you can to save this child’s life and that has to be a priority, so siblings aren’t necessarily included in things.”
Keenan does not admit it, but Tarbet says siblings of sick kids can feel underappreciated and undervalued.
Keenan also was worried. He would ask his mother if he would get leukemia, too.
On top of that, much of the family money goes for medical bills, so vacations get put off and gifts are modest.
Candlelighters, part of a national organization named for an act that symbolizes hope and keeping vigil, tries to neutralize the effect with fun. The Tarbets recall a Christmas party attended by Puddles and Benny, the Duck and Beaver mascots from University of Oregon and Oregon State. The two big creatures cavorted and hugged and made everyone laugh.
“We don’t just invite the sick kids, we invite the entire family,” says Tarbet, who is now chairwoman of the Candlelighters board.
She says the organization provides “moments of life when you feel normal, the moments of life when you feel like, ‘I am going to take these two little boys to a Christmas party and it doesn’t matter if one of them has chemo-face, all puffed up and huge. Nobody cares. It’s just about having fun. For that short moment, you don’t have to think about the fact that you are dealing with cancer.”
Mekel, 20, graduated from La Salle Prep in 2015. Even though Candlelighters offered him a college scholarship, he decided to join the Army and became a combat medic. Tarbet, herself an Air Force veteran, says her son’s urge to serve emerged from his time as a sick child, followed by the support Candlelighters gave.
As for Keenan, she is sure the group made her a better mother for him and gave him an urge for community. Keenan, 12, is a sixth grader at Our Lady of the Lake and was baptized Catholic a year ago.
Candlelighters for Children with Cancer, the official name of the group, was founded in 1977 by five families. The organization quietly offers emergency financial aid, monthly family activities, in-hospital meals and a family camp. About 80,000 people have been helped in Oregon and Southwest Washington.
“Candlelighters’ goal is to help the entire family,” says Amanda Vowels, a spokeswoman.
“When a child is diagnosed, the disease affects the entire family and we try to think of every single family member,” says Jackie Groah, executive director of Candlelighters. “We provide things most families take for granted, things they don't even realize they need. Things that make them feel like a normal family again."