Amber Wise never imagined that her 5-year-old son Josiah would one day be diagnosed with leukemia.
“He was complaining that his legs hurt,” Wise said. “It kept getting worse, and so we took him to the local hospital in Spokane, but they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him.”
Finally, after running several blood tests, Wise received a call informing her that her son had acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
“When we found out he had cancer, I felt like I hit the bottom of the barrel,” Wise said.
At the time, Wise and her family were homeless, struggling to secure stable housing in Moses Lake, a city on the east side of the Cascade Mountains. With the help of a relative, she relocated with her wife and son to Seattle where Josiah could receive the best possible care at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
The family moved into a Ronald McDonald House near the hospital while Josiah began treatment. At first, the young child had trouble understanding what was happening to his body.
“I told him, ‘Honey, we gotta start treatment because you have something called cancer,’” Wise said. “And he said, ‘Mommy are you going to let them kill me?’ He didn’t understand how chemo worked at first and thought they were going to poison him. It was a very emotional time.”
Fortunately, after a relatively brief course of treatment, Josiah’s cancer entered remission. But according to Ronald McDonald House policy, the family was no longer eligible for housing once Josiah was out of the hospital. He still needed monthly rounds of chemo and a safe place to rest and recover in Seattle.
That’s when the Wise family learned about a Mary’s Place program called Popsicle Place for children experiencing life-threatening illnesses.
Popsicle Place, located primarily at the Mary’s Place Guest Rooms in South Lake Union and at a Mary’s Place house in Shoreline, gives homeless families with chronically sick kids a place to rest and recuperate. Families get private rooms, or the use of single-family houses that are loaned to the organization. The cost to run Popsicle Place varies by location and need of the families. The organization has received a couple of grants for the program, but primarily the funding comes from the general Mary’s Place budget.
Those who use Popsicle Place services include families with children battling cancer and mothers with babies born premature. The program is currently hosting about nine families but has the capacity to shelter more.
Some families who come to the program had unstable housing prior to their child becoming sick, others lose their housing stability while trying to care for their children.
“There are families that end up losing their homes and their jobs because of the time and the resources and the dedication that they devote to their children,” said Dr. Brian Cartin, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital and Popsicle Place volunteer. “It can be extremely powerful and very fulfilling to say to these children and families, ‘We’re here to support you through this. We’re here to take that burden of being homeless off of you for the time being so you can focus on recovery.’”
Wise said that Popsicle Place gave her family more than the house they stayed at north of Seattle. They gained access to the food bank, received bus passes to transport Josiah to his appointments and enjoyed board games and volunteer visitors when he was restricted to the indoors.
Nurse Kelly Brewer, director of health and wellness at Mary’s Place, said that many traditional shelters can’t offer the kind of long-term housing and privacy that children with chronic illness require.
“They need protection from germs, many have medical equipment that needs to be sterilized. They have a bit more specific needs than our general families.”
Brewer began as a volunteer at Mary’s Place two years ago before joining the Popsicle Place team full time. Brewer and other medically trained volunteers care for Popsicle Place patients when they are recuperating away from the hospital: checking their vitals, monitoring oxygen tanks and feeding tubes, cleaning medical equipment and changing dressings, among other duties.
“Having a child who is sick is one of the worst things you can imagine, and then being homeless at the same time and not being able to provide your child with the most basic things is just absolutely heartbreaking,” said Brewer. “It’s a real honor to be able to help these families in any way that we can, but especially, as a mom myself, it means a lot to me to be able to do something when I see a family struggling.”
Now that the Wise family is exiting Popsicle Place, Mary’s Place has worked to give them a running start. The organization paid the move-in deposit on their new home in Moses Lake, bought a bed for Josiah and gave Wise gift cards for Goodwill to help get her family settled.
Wise said that her son has had such a positive experience at Popsicle Place that he doesn’t want to leave.
“They’ve just been such an inspiration to us, and he’s gotten comfortable with it,” Wise said. “But I told him that there’s a point that we have to leave because there are other kids out there like you that are sick who need help too, their families need help. And he said ‘OK, Mommy’ and went and started packing up some of the stuff, it was really cute.”
When Dr. Cartin talks about his work, he likes to use an example to help people empathize with his patients.
“Think about a time in your life when you’ve had a cold. Think about what you do when you’re sick and how you care for yourself and how you comfort yourself. A big part of that is having a stable home with a couch to curl up on and some warm soup,” Cartin said. “Now think about how much that gets compounded by patients who have lifelong illnesses and are in and out of the hospital. This concept of Popsicle Place is powerful. We’re saying you have that couch to lie on, you have that bed to curl up in. You have that support while you’re here trying to work through this illness that your family is struggling with.”
Having suffered an exceptionally difficult life, Wise is very moved by the unconditional support that staff and volunteers have shown her family. Growing up in Michigan, Wise was raised in a low-income neighborhood by two parents struggling with addiction. Her older sister took over the childrearing until she was 16 and had two children of her own. At 14, Wise left home to relieve her sister of the burden and made her own way, falling in and out of love and addiction in the process.
After years of hardship, she said Popsicle Place has renewed her belief in the kindness of strangers.
“I’m so grateful for what we have here in Seattle,” Wise said. “So many people are so loving. I thought that had died out in the world, but now I see that it hasn’t.”
Sydney Parker is a writer living in Seattle. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, Seattle Met and Splitsider.
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