Solana Beach church campers and volunteers raise funds to battle childhood cancer


By Kristina Houck

When 7-year-old Max Mikulak died a month after his family joined Solana Beach Presbyterian Church, the church and the greater community stepped up to support the Carmel Valley family. Nearly six years later, the local church remains a constant source of support, having hosted and participated in fundraisers for Max’s Ring of Fire, a nonprofit that Max’s parents founded after he lost his four-year battle with childhood cancer.

“Sometimes, it feels like they understand without even really knowing the whole story,” said Max’s mother, Melissa Mikulak. “There’s so much compassion in everyone’s hearts.”

For the 10th annual KidsGames June 23-27, a summer camp held at Solana Beach Presbyterian Church, 550 children and more than 350 teen and adult volunteers raised money for Max’s Ring of Fire, which benefits pediatric cancer research and clinical trials.

“Max was very sweet, very kind,” said Colleen Ster, who served as co-project manager for KidsGames with Melissa Bolt. Both Ster and Bolt previously taught Bible class, which is where they met Max.

“Our goal as adults is to walk alongside the kids and to model behavior,” said Ster, a Carmel Valley mother of three, whose family has attended Solana Beach Presbyterian for nearly 12 years. “As a mother, that’s what draws me to come back every year. You can talk until you’re blue in the face, but our actions speak louder than words.”

Every year, KidsGames selects a “compassion project” to give back to the community.

IMG_1007This year, proceeds benefited Max’s Ring of Fire, which supports the Neuroblastoma and Medulloblastoma Translational Research Consortium. Led by Dr. Giselle Sholler, the group of 18 universities and children’s hospitals is based at the Helen Devos Children’s Hospital in Michigan and offers a nationwide network of childhood cancer clinical trials.

Campers and volunteers sold baked goods and washed cars to raise money for the organization.

“When a child relapses with neuroblastoma, there is no protocol,” Mikulak said. “There is no medicine, there is no chemotherapy, there is nothing they can give them that has been proven to do anything.”

Born on June 30, 2001, Max was diagnosed with stage IV, high-risk neuroblastoma in October 2004. After treatment, he relapsed in November 2006 and entered a trial in Vermont headed by Sholler. His disease diminished during the trial until there was just one tiny spot still evident on his spine.

Unfortunately, the cancer aggressively returned in February 2008, and Max died on Aug. 31, 2008, only six days after starting second grade at Solana Highlands Elementary School.

“He did really well for about 18 months, and then the cancer came back even stronger. That’s when he lost his life,” Mikulak said. “But we still support her work.”

The organization’s largest fundraiser is Touch A Truck, an annual car show that recently took place June 7 at Qualcomm Stadium. During the event, children touch and honk the horns of race cars, military vehicles, public safety vehicles and more.

In February, Solana Beach Presbyterian sold lemonade from a stand to benefit Max’s Ring of Fire.

As of July 1, proceeds from KidsGames totaled $9,100, but the church is still collecting donations, Mikulak said.

“We dearly miss our brave little soul Max, but we are thankful for the love in people’s hearts that he has helped to unlock,” Mikulak said.


For more about KidsGames, visit