SANTA CLARA — Virginia Mochel was only 5 years old when she was first diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a form of blood cancer. After more than two years of aggressive treatment, she was cleared of cancer, until she relapsed again at age 7 1/2.
Although it was a stressful time for Mochel’s family, she still remembers the first year they attended Courageous Kids Day, a family event held on Mother’s Day at California’s Great America theme park with free rides, games and food for families of children with cancer.
“At the hospital, you see [kids] in masks all the time, no hair,” said Mochel, who is now 14. “Seeing them here, they’re not worried about what’s going on, they’re just happy.”
Seven years cancer free, Mochel and her family have continued to come to the event held by the American Cancer Society, with the goal of giving 600 families a day away from cancer.
Mochel, an ambassador for the event, said Sunday that she likes meeting other kids who undergoing cancer treatment.
“It’s good because I can talk to them and tell them how I felt, and the things they can expect,” Mochel said of younger cancer patients. “In the hospital, you’re isolated to one room. You’ve been in that room so long… it lightens your day to be [here], back to normal.”
The event, now in its 30th year, included free admission to the theme park and activities like face painting, an obstacle course, water balloon toss, family portraits and a picnic lunch.
It was 7-year-old Alex Quintero’s third time at Courageous Kids Day. His first year, Alex, who lives in Sonoma, was diagnosed with blood cancer and was too young to go on many of the rides.
Alex, who is now in remission, donned a red superhero cape (handed out by event staff), and was excited to go on as many rides as he could.
“He looks forward to it all year,” said his mother, Maritza Quintero. “It has nothing to do with being sick and going through treatment.”
Many of the event’s organizers and volunteers are survivors of cancer or have lost loved ones to the disease.
Bob Steinfeld first attended Courageous Kids Day with his son, Sam, who was diagnosed with brain cancer at age 1. After nine surgeries and a bone marrow transplant, Sam died when he was 3.
Almost 25 years later, Steinfeld and his family have continued to volunteer.
“You see other people who are going through the same thing,” said Steinfeld.
The obstacle course at Sunday’s festival was sponsored by Wipeout Cancer, an organization started by Caroline Lee, a triathlete and survivor of colon cancer.
Lee competed on the television show Wipeout in 2010 and won $50,000. Two years later, she was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer, and while taking time off work to deal with the illness, conceived the idea to host sports days for children with cancer.
Lee realized, while undergoing treatment, how important supportive friends were for her to be able to enjoy the same physical activities she had participated in before her diagnosis.
“When I was going through chemo, (I would ask), how far are we going? How long for? Who are we going with?” she said.
“I want them to push themselves a little, but feel safe,” said Lee.
The event is also a celebration of family and siblings who support a loved one going through cancer.
Virginia Mochel came from Sacramento with her younger sister, Rebecca Rose, and her parents, Stella and Glenn Mochel.
When Mochel relapsed, she needed a bone marrow transplant. Her younger sister, who was 4 years old at the time, was a perfect match.
Stella Mochel said the event helped her realize how hard she had worked to care for her daughter during that time.
“You spend so much time focused on your kid. The first time I came, they welcomed me as a ‘courageous mom,’ and it hit me in the heart,” she said. “It helped me acknowledge what I had done [to help my daughter].”
To get involved with Courageous Kids Day, contact Jennifer Highland at email@example.com.
Contact Thy Vo at 408-200-1055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Free event celebrates “Courageous Kids” with cancer