Emery Welles was just a baby when her parents noticed she was much more irritable than her older brother had been at that age, or other typical four month olds they’d been around. Emery’s mom, Aja, a labor and delivery nurse at Vail Health knew somethng wasn’t right with her sweet baby girl. Soon, the Welles heard the ‘C’ word every person dreads, who by Emmy, was diagnosed with a rare childhool cancer known as embryonal rhabdomuosarcoma.
“Initially, we spent a lot of time at night research ways we would no go bankrupt as a family,” says Michael Welles, Emmy’s dada who has chronicled her treatment on a Facebook page called Emmy;s Friends.
“Your mortgage doesn’t stop needing to be paid; you still have to put groceries in the fridge.”
It was one of those evenings, duirng the early days of diagnosis, the Welles “stumbled upon” the Vail Valley Charitable Fund(VVCF).
For more than two decades, the VVCF has helped individuals who live and work in Eagle County and are facing financial hardship due to a medical crisis or long-term illness. When local attorney Rohn Robbins started the VVCF, hi No. 1 goal was to “help those in need of our community, particularly those who may not be well connected”, he says.
Since its inception, the nonprofit has done just that; it has raised and distributed more than 7.5 million to approxminately 1,500 families in the community. The nonprofit hosts four annual athletic events that are fundraisers, including the Summer Solstice, a trail run in Beaver Creek; the LG Tri, a sprint triathlon in Eagle held in honor of Laaura Genelin who lost her fight to cancer; the BecTri, a triathlon held in Avon i nhonor of local Rebecca Lynn Yarberry, a beloved triathlete who died in a car accident in 2007; and the Oktoberfest Shuffle, a non-competitive event held each Labor Day Weekend.
The money raised at these events and from generous donors throughout the year helps fund Eagle County Smiles, a VVCF community collaborative program that offers low-cost dental care to local uninsured children. More than 500 children have received dental care since 2010.
Additionally, $5,000 grants are awarded to residents facing what is often a very dire situation. Some recent examples include the family of a 9-year-old boy with a facial tumor who needed weekly chemotherapy for a full year, followed by radiation and surgery; the family of a 15-year-old girl who suffered a traumatic spinal cord injury in a ski accident and is paralyzed from the chest down; a 50-year-old woman who was diagnosed previously with multiple sclerosis and, more recently, breast cancer and is unable to work; a 6-year-old girl diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia who will receive chemotherapy at Children’s Hospital each week for 2- 1 / 2 years; a 52-year-old man who is undergoing radiation for prostate cancer, affecting his ability to work and pay his basic living expenses, like rent and food.
According to Robbins, it’s the “neighbors helping neighbors” mentality that’s helped the Foundation succeed. “Most people know someone who has been helped by the VVCF,” he says. That help came in the form of an initial $5,000 grant for the Welles, to help with the bills that inevitably started to accumulate.
“That took some of the pressure off on this journey,” says Michael, clarifying the family specifically opted to call the process a journey rather than a battle, or this “thing we’re constantly fighting.”
Emmy has spent the last few years undergoing treatment, yet through all but the worst days, you might not have known she was sick—except for her once-round, shiny head, which is now covered in dark blonde hair. “This little girl is an ancient soul who has never met astranger,” Aja, says. “She has a beautiful sense of humor and never takes anything too seriously. We can all learn a lot from her.” Initially, Emmy receivedchemotherapy treatment at Children’s Hospital in Denver for a year. Whenthe cancer cells reappeared right out of chemo, something Michael called “devastating,” the Welles were forced to get really aggressive with treatment. They moved their family to Boston for four months where Emmy underwent 28 sessions of extremely intense chemotherapy and radiation at Mass General Hospital. After that course, they returned to Children’sHospital in Aurora for treatment five days a week from October 2017 through March of this year.
It was shortly after their return to Colorado that the VVCF hosted an extended grant fundraiser for the Welles at Vendetta’s in November of 2017, which Michael calls a “genuinely humbling experience.”
“The outpouring of love and support from the organization and this community we live in, it just left us speechless,” he says, pointing out that so many of the folks they’ve met on their journey who are facing similar struggles don’t have a similar organization helping them when they need it most.
At the end of September, the family got the news they’ve been anxiously hoping for: Emmy’s six-months-out scans came back clear.