Sitting on the couch in her New Braunfels home, Michelle Withers smiled as she watched her 6-year-old son Rowland spiral around the living room like a tiny tornado.
A Jurassic Park fan, he grabbed a pair of toy dinosaurs and sprinted through the kitchen before coming back to reel off the names of prehistoric creatures scattered around him.
“This is a pteranodon,” he said as he swept a plastic model of the winged reptile in the air. “Kaw, kaw!”
Withers is thankful for his bursts of energy — it hasn’t always been this way.
The youngster had to spend 2018 inside their home, away from the germs and infections of the outside world because of treatments for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, known as ALL.
On ExpressNews.com: Girl with ALL in remission designs Band-Aid to help other kids
Their house was a safe haven for Rowland, but at times it seemed like a prison.
The only time he could leave was for medical treatment, and last year, Rowland had to spend Christmas in a hospital room. The family brought his gifts to the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, but it wasn’t the same.
Now, an excited Rowland and his family will celebrate Christmas in July along with a dozen other families, thanks to the nonprofit Ma Hila’s Heart.
“It’s love, a show of support, hope and not feeling alone,” said Withers, 42. “That’s a beautiful thing to receive. It’s healthy and healing for Rowland and for us to be able to do something like this. It helps you remember there are people who are willing to help.”
The celebration begins July 13 with a gala at the Hyatt Regency Riverwalk Hotel for the 28 families who will be getting a weekend staycation and all kinds of goodies, thanks to 16 hotels and 16 restaurants.
It’s the brainchild of Gloria Benavidez Rodriguez. She and her nonprofit have been lifting the spirits of children with cancer and their families with all-expenses-paid weekends of activities for the past five years.
The two-hour gala will feature dancing, decorating ornaments, a visit from Paws for Pets, makeovers, mariachis, and a visit by comic book superheroes and, of course, Santa Claus.
Rodriguez, owner of DASA Spa on the Riverwalk, said the families will have limousine service to and from the Hyatt ballroom. They will spend the night of July 13, a Saturday, at various hotels, and on Sunday morning will have breakfast and then a parade and lunch on the River Walk.
“So many families go through hard times in the heat of the summer,” Rodriguez said, “and we bring Christmas early to them. It’s so necessary to give unto others.”
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Rodriguez founded the charity in honor of her mother, who died of pancreatic cancer July 30, 2010. The nonprofit is named for the one thing her mother asked for before she died: Ma Hila’s Heart.
“Ma Hila” was the family nickname for Rodriguez’s grandmother. When one of her children or grandchildren were hurting, from falls or sickness, Ma Hila would cut out a red paper heart. She would ask the child to close his or her eyes, then would whisper a prayer for the child to feel better. Then she would give the child the heart to put on the area that hurt.
That inspired Rodriguez to create a community service project to comfort those in pain as her caring mother and grandmother had always done. The nonprofit is operated by a 12-member board with the help of several advisers. Rodriguez said nurses at local hospitals help the group connect with families that need Christmas in July.
Rodriguez said the special weekend gives families a chance to shelve their worries about appointments, medicines and their child’s health, even if it’s just for a little while. Parents have told Rodriguez they appreciate the nonprofit’s offering an experience that Withers called “magical.”
Currently, Rowland’s illness is in maintenance and he’s looking forward to resuming his life. He hopes to start first grade in the fall, and he’s counting down the days to Aug. 28, 2021, when he should be done with chemotherapy.
But first, Rowland is looking forward to next week’s Christmas in July. He’ll be there with his mother, his grandmother Debbie Sayers and his dad, Brett, who Withers says is the calming force who has helped keep the family steady during Rowland’s illness.
Rodriguez said preparing for the early Christmas event is like walking on sacred ground.
“It’s cherishing every single moment of this journey,” she said. “We’re able to put our arms around these families and show them some love, joy and hope for a weekend. Then they’ll have memories for a lifetime.”
Vincent T. Davis is a reporter in the Greater San Antonio and Bexar County area. Read him on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | email@example.com | Twitter: @vincentdavis