On June 11, 2011, 12-year-old Sydney Hedges was playing at a park in Colstrip, Montana when she unexpectedly went into cardiac arrest. She was transported to Billings where doctors discovered she had an astrocytoma, a brain tumor, growing in the back portion of the brain which coordinates and regulates muscular activity. While doctors removed part of the aggressive tumor immediately, Sydney was flown out for long-term treatment at Children’s Hospital Colorado just outside Denver. She’d come and go for the entire next year for radiation, chemotherapy and rehabilitation therapies. During treatment, the fast-moving tumor caused a massive stroke, which left Sydney wheelchair bound for four months. She had to completely relearn how to walk and talk.
Five years, several surgeries and countless trips to Denver later, the treatment nightmare continues. Sydney’s tumor is now considered a glioblastoma because of its aggressive malignancy. She receives monthly immunotherapy in Denver and the doctors are carefully watching a couple of spots for growth. As if the emotional toll weren’t overwhelming enough, the cost for Sydney’s care is staggering. The bills have reached the $2 million mark and are still climbing. “The Colstrip community has been a great support,” says Sydney’s mother Angie. “They have done several different fundraising events for us.” Even still, the out of pocket costs after insurance have totaled more than $40,000.
Families of children with chronic or catastrophic illnesses are understandably overwhelmed by the sheer cost of treating their children. Sadly, sometimes the medical bills outlive the child. Twenty-five years ago, Billie Clark and her friends were on a Harley Davidson poker run (an organized event where players use mostly motorcycles to visit roughly a half-dozen checkpoints, drawing a playing card at each one. The object is to have the best poker hand at the end of the run). As Billie sat outside one of the stops, she started a conversation with a mother and child. She asked the mother, “Is he your only child?” She discovered that the little boy’s sister had passed away three years prior and the mother was still trying to pay off the medical bills. Billie was overcome with emotion. “I thought how horrible to lose a child but then to get reminders every month for years later, in the form of medical bills is just unthinkable. I couldn’t get it out of my head. It just stayed with me.” Billie did what Billie does when she sets her mind to something. She jumped in with both feet and began “Helping Hands”, a charity to help defray the medical-related expenses for families with children who have serious illnesses.
The very first Helping Hands Poker Run benefited a little girl who had gone blind from a brain tumor. Billie and her friends raised $750 that year. They helped the family buy some much-needed school clothes since the little girl was heading off to a school for the blind.
Over the course of 25 years, Billie and a growing number of Helping Hands volunteers have vowed to raise money and “adopt” one family in need each year. It’s a unique charity because the organization doesn’t raise money to give directly to the families. Billie does her best to take the burden off of families by spending hours engaging the hospitals, bill collectors, foundations, and clinics to pay off the bills for each family. She works with agencies to remove the interest charged and reduce a family’s overall bill. She will even fill out grant applications and paperwork if needed, just to get a bill paid. As the bills are paid, she will mark them “paid in full” and send copies to the families.
The Helping Hands Poker Run happens the first part of each June. That’s not the group’s only fundraising endeavor. It also sponsors a large silent auction with donors from all over the community. Each year Fuddruckers feeds all the participants, free of charge. The run has raised upwards of $25,000 annually with every dollar going towards reducing one family’s burden. Last year’s run had more than 300 bikers participating.
Sydney is the current recipient and in 2016, she rode the poker run circuit with the riders. “She loved it. She had her picture taken at every stop with a group of bikers,” says Angie. Of Billie, she says “We just love her. She is the best.” Helping hands has been able to cover more than $10,000 of the Hedges’ out of pocket medical bills. Because of the community’s generosity, Helping Hands was able to help another child in need, Sophie Kroll. Sophie was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes and her family was facing enormous costs along with having the need to pay for an insulin pump. Her mother, Jo, says, “We were just drowning in medicine costs. Helping Hands just helped get us going.”
A few years back, the Loomis family received a helping hand when 12-year-old Alan was diagnosed with leukemia. Now a college graduate with a degree in business, Alan helps run the family business Yellowstone Polaris. As several of “Billie’s kids” gathered together recently for a reunion, Billie teared up when she saw Alan, now a strong healthy young man. She remembers when the family wasn’t sure if Alan would even survive.
The Helping Hands community has lost several children over the years and they feel it deeply. They know there’s a risk they’ll pour their hearts into a child only to watch that child succumb to his illness. Tears form as they talk of those they have lost, but it doesn’t stop their diligent work caring for today’s families. Volunteers Rod Mangis and Carol Corder say they keep working with Billie “because she’d kick our butts if we didn’t” and because the organization is so well run. “Billie keeps us motivated. Having it all work so well and to see it come together is amazing.” They love the unique concept as a charity and know, “If it wasn’t for Billie, it would never happen. She’s the rock.”
Everything about Helping Hands speaks of Billie’s personal strength and love of children. It’s clear that this isn’t just a fundraising project to her. These are children whom she deeply loves and will advocate for to her last breath. She raised more than just money. She raised hope that tomorrow could bring a brighter day in the midst of the confusing and, at times, isolating world of childhood illness.
TO LEARN MORE about how you can share in Helping Hand’s mission, visit the group on Facebook at facebook.com/billingshelpinghands