“Memphis is a dangerous city. I’m glad to be home. I feel safe in Falmouth,” Ashley S. Velez said upon her return after spending Christmas with her family in Tennessee, where her youngest child, 4-year-old Tristan J. Velez, is undergoing an SJDAWN clinical trial at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Tristan has a few more weeks to stay at St. Jude before he and his father, Daniel J. Velez, return home. The clinical trial is Tristan’s last chance to overcome a malignant brain cancer he has been fighting for half of his young life.
To help the Velez family, and the parents’ struggle to keep their son alive, community members were invited to take an ornament from the “giving tree” at the Quahog Republic in Falmouth, sponsored by Wings for Falmouth Families, or a mitten from the “mitten tree” at the Waquoit Congregational Church, and purchase items suggested on the ornament or mitten.
The Reverend Nell Fields of the Waquoit church knows from experience, and quotes research to back it up, that when we are generous to others, it helps our own well-being.
Yet even she has been stunned by the outpouring of love and support offered to the Velez family once their story got out.
“I don’t even have words to describe what this giving has been like,” she said. “It has been overwhelming, emotionally.”
While Tristan has been undergoing treatment at St. Jude and his parents and sisters learned to navigate a strange city far from home over Christmas, a tidal wave of donations and offers of help were bringing a community together.
Ms. Fields and the church have had a relationship with the Velez family for three years.
“They are part of our community,” she said. “But people I have never met have been coming to the church—or stopping me on the street—to give cash donations. Gift cards, letters, and emails with messages of love and hope have arrived. Professionals are offering services, such as car maintenance; a spa day for Tristan’s mother; horse-back riding lessons for the older daughter, to help with her anxiety about her brother’s illness.
“People who have just heard about the family have responded out of genuine concern,” Ms. Fields said. “It takes my breath away.”
Although some of the monetary donations have been substantial, “this is not just about the money,” Ms. Fields said. “This story is touching something deep inside; it’s bringing people together.”
One Falmouth donor has had her own experience with a very sick child. She gave a large cash donation because, she said, she was “very blessed this year” and had it to give.
“When I read the Velezes’ story, it was preying on my heart,” she said. “I had to help them. I have been thinking of them so much.”
A North Falmouth resident read the story on Facebook. Her son is in the same class at school as one of the Velez daughters. “My family and I wanted to help,” she said.
A couple from Colorado who used to live in Falmouth also saw the Velez story on Facebook and sent a donation.
A public relations agency, on behalf of Dunkins, sent gift cards after seeing the Velezes’ story on Facebook. The original article began with a description of Tristan and his parents walking into a local Dunkins.
Wings for Falmouth Families sponsored an “Ugly Sweater Contest” at the Quahog Republic on December 20, when people could bring their unwrapped gifts to put under the giving tree, and to draw attention to the donation effort.
Tammy E. Matthews, wife of Christopher S. Matthews who was in his role as “DJ Tundra” during the Ugly Sweater Contest event, said, “Chris and I really love to give back to the community. This is the spirit of Christmas; that’s what it’s all about,” she said.
“Everything we do here,” Mr. Matthews said, referring to the Quahog Republic, “It’s all about local people helping local families.”
“I’m friends with the DJ and I’m here to support Wings for Falmouth Families,” Brian A. Caufield of Monument Beach said. “It is important to give back to the community. Even though I don’t live in Falmouth, most of my friends are here.”
“It’s super exciting to be able to do this. We are happy to support the Velez family,” Brian J. Keefe, member of the Wings board of directors, said as he chatted with other patrons, wearing a particularly “ugly” red blazer.
“The Ugly Sweater evening was wonderful,” Kristen T. Shearer, president of the Wings board of directors, said. “We had a great turn-out.”
In addition to the gifts Wings collected through the giving tree, Wings “passed a hat” for the Velez family and collected several hundred dollars in just a few minutes, Ms. Shearer said.
Paula McConnell, who runs The Lee Ann Manillo Foundation, contacted Ms. Shearer to say the foundation had funds available to help.
Created in memory of Ms. McConnell’s daughter from Pocasset, who died the day after giving birth to twins in 2014, the Lee Ann Manillo Foundation is dedicated to providing support to families who have experienced a tragic loss or are in a time of deep need.
Ms. McConnell took “a significant number of ornaments” from the giving tree, Ms. Shearer said, and returned with gifts, and a cash donation for the Velez family.
That weekend, members of the Wings board of directors and a large group of volunteers and their families gathered to wrap the Christmas gifts from the giving tree.
“Tristan is doing all right,” Ms. Velez said. “He has good days and bad days. St. Jude’s is really amazing,” she said.
Ms. Velez said that the family had a small Christmas celebration in Tennessee. She and her daughters will wait for Tristan and his father to return before having a bigger celebration together.
“The Christmas trees are down and the lights are put away, and people are still giving,” Ms. Fields said. “The donations we have received will help offset expenses for the Velez family in the new year.
“In a world that is so uncertain right now, with so much bad news over which we have no control—fires, the threat of war—we can make the world a little better right here at home,” Ms. Fields said.
Tristan’s future is still not known. He will receive an MRI next month to see if the treatment received at St. Jude’s is working, his mother said.