Sixteen-year-old Yuntasha can’t live the life of a normal teenager.The San Diego girl was diagnosed with a stage 4 brain tumor last April, her second battle with cancer. On top of that, she also suffers from water diabetes, obesity, hormone problems, a learning disability and hypertension disorder, her mother said.
And through it all, asthma makes breathing and walking to and from her doctor’s appointments difficult for the girl.
That’s where the Emilio Nares Foundation stepped in to help kids like Yuntasha.
The San Diego-based organization offers transportation for families in San Diego, Imperial and Orange counties to doctor’s appointments for children suffering from cancer and blood diseases. It was founded in 2003 by Richard Nares and his wife Diane Nares, whose son Emilio died of acute lymphoblastic leukemia in October 2000 at the age of 5. The boy had been diagnosed two years prior when he experienced prolonged colds, fevers and random bruising, his parents said.
“About two years after Emilio passed, Richard and I started conversations about how sad it was for so many people that we witnessed [in that they] they didn’t have support nearby [where they lived],” Diane Nares said. “They were doing this alone, and we discovered there was a whole economically underserved group of parents that were at Rady Children’s Hospital. We knew that they were struggling because they didn’t have a car, and they were taking buses to get to appointments.”
Yuntasha’s mother, LaToya Johnson, who does not own a car, said her daughter has trouble walking down the hill to her home, then to various modes of transportation like multiple buses and a trolley just to reach the front steps of the hospitals.
Now, the Emilio Nares Foundation van picks Yuntasha up from her doorstep before her appointments, drives her straight to the front door of the hospitals and takes her home.
“Emilio Nares Foundation, to me, over the years is more than just a program,” Johnson said in an email. “It is a family of different people that want to help other families that have been through what they have been through, whether it’s a child of their own, a family member they know or even just a friend. They understand, care and truly love what they do, and for that I call them family.”
The program started with Richard Nares driving the families in his own car in 2003, but eventually the demand got too high when he was taking about six families a week and he was receiving more requests. He sat down with social workers at Rady Children’s Hospital and developed the plan to purchase vans to transport the families to their appointments.
All expenses — about $175,000 per year for the vans, maintenance, drivers, insurance and gas in the San Diego chapter alone — are paid for by the foundation.
“[The social worker] said a lot of people tried this, but they don’t get very far because it’s so expensive,” Richard Nares said. “We ended up coming up with a really good plan of how it would work and, low and behold, while we did that, I started writing grants and submitting proposals and started getting a lot of money. Within a year, I raised $150,000.”
When the driving program started in 2005, the foundation was providing transportation for about 25 families per week. Now, the organization serves more than 40 families per week. Between 5,000 and 7,000 families have been served in San Diego, Imperial and Orange counties, Richard Nares said.
Appointments are coordinated and calls to the foundation must be made at least the night prior so the driver has routes he or she can follow.
The foundation raises money through fundraisers and events. The next event will take place May 5 when Gap Intelligence, a values-led market research firm, will host the fifth annual Drives for Rides golf tournament to benefit the foundation at the Encinitas Ranch Golf Course.
An added bonus of the vans is they are sterilized to keep the children away from harmful germs, carry healthy snacks and provide toys and books to keep the kids occupied.
The foundation also provides snack bags to the hospital for kids and developed “Loving Tabs” shirts that have snaps near the shoulder for doctors to have easier access to a child’s chest port to administer chemotherapy and other medications. It also has a resource center at Rady Children’s Hospital.
“Our emphasis is that we’re a hands-on organization,” Richard Nares said. “We become really close to those families. We’re really on the ground with them and in touch with what goes on. We really pride ourselves that we’re part of their treatment.”
Diane Nares said over the years it has become difficult to see families go through the same situation they went through, but she is grateful something like the Emilio Nares Foundation exists for them.
The families are also thankful, she said, adding that a few moms have named their sons after Emilio in his honor.
“It’s been a bit taxing emotionally because going through that is so rough and we lost Emilio,” she said. “But probably the most gratifying feeling is when a mom or a dad comes up and thanks us. They say they get some time to feel a sense of relief, if only for that 30-minute drive. That’s worth everything.”
For more information about the Emilio Nares Foundation, visit www.enfhope.org
If You Go:
What: Drives for Rides Golf Tournament benefiting the Emilio Nares Foundation
When: May 5. Registration opens at 11 a.m. Dinner banquet begins at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Encinitas Ranch Golf Course, 1275 Quail Gardens Drive
Cost: From $200 for golfers to $7,500 for major sponsors. Donations also accepted.