FRAZEE, Minn. -- Either Kristin or Thaddeus Helmers was at their son Vincent's side during all nine months of his brain cancer treatments. Kristin left her job to make sure of it.
They saw first-hand that some other kids with cancer aren't as lucky.
"When we were in the hospital, Vincent saw some kids that were having to get chemo by themselves. He didn't like that," Kristin said, holding back tears. "There was a young little boy that his mom couldn't take off work, she's a single mom, and the little boy had to do chemo by himself."
Paying the bills wasn't easy for the Helmers either, as they have two more sons relying on a one-parent income. After seeing other families' experiences too, they decided that they could help others in the same position and created the Stand By Me Foundation.
On Feb. 1, the Helmers hosted a fundraiser banquet for the foundation, raising more than $7,000 -- enough to cover a mortgage payment for about five families.
The event was just three weeks after Vincent, 18, died from his brain cancer.
'Helping us help families'
The Helmers started creating the Stand By Me Foundation in late spring 2019, just a few months after Vincent was diagnosed with brain cancer.
"We were looking for organizations to help us once we realized Kristin had to leave her job," Thaddeus said, explaining why they took on starting a nonprofit as they went through cancer treatments themselves. "When we were filling our applications, they were very specific."
Vincent turned 18 in April, making him a legal adult when he was diagnosed in May. Because of this, they were denied many forms of help, Thaddeus said. Many applications were cancer-specific as well. Some organizations did make an exception for the Helmers, but local help from the community and friends and family is how they were able to pay the bills.
It was the age and cancer specifications, and seeing other parents struggle with them, that made it "dawn on us one day that ... we should do something," Thaddeus said.
"It wasn't difficult (starting). It was a lot of paperwork; there was a lot of stuff that needed to be done," he said.
One of those things was finding a name for the nonprofit, which they didn't figure out until after Vincent's fourth surgery.
"At night, neither (Kristin or I) could sleep because his blood pressure machine would go off all the time because his blood pressure was all over the place," Thaddeus explained as Kristin wiped away tears. "We kind of realized that when we held his hand, it would lower his blood pressure. When it lowered his blood pressure, his body had a better chance. So I just remember watching Kristin stand next to him, holding his, and there it was."
Kristin holding Vincent's hand in the hospital bed is also incorporated into the Stand By Me Foundation's logo. The vertical gray and blue ribbon represents the parent while the horizontal one represents the child in the bed, Thaddeus said. The gray ribbon is the brain cancer ribbon, and the blue and pink colors are there because they were Vincent's favorite colors.
At the end of July, the Stand By Me Foundation was officially recognized as a nonprofit by the state, Thaddeus said, and they started fundraising. Vincent was out of the hospital then, and he and Kristin traveled locally, telling people and businesses about their new organization and their personal story.
"He helped me get all the donations for the silent auction," Kristin said. "He was very active with that part."
As they raised money, a social worker at Sanford's Roger Maris Cancer Center found prospective families for them to help. Each family they help is at one of the centers. Although families must fill out an application, Thaddeus said that "we're pretty open. we're not willing to shut the door on someone." Families also choose what bill would be the most beneficial to be paid, which is usually their house payment, Kristin said.
In November, they raised enough funds to cover their first mortgage payment for a family. They helped a West Fargo, N.D., family whose child, Grantley Johnson, was a fellow cancer patient that Vincent had come to know and spend time with during his own treatments. Grantley, age 7, died on Feb. 6 after an almost two-year battle with acute myeloblastic leukemia.
Grieving through giving
Just as the Helmers made their first mortgage payment through the foundation at the end of November, Vincent had his 10th surgery, started a new type of chemotherapy treatment, and scheduled his 11th surgery for Friday, Dec. 27.
Vincent's surgery lasted hours that day. The surgeon wasn't able to safely reach his tumor. Thirteen days later, Vincent died in his home.
As his family organized the funeral, they continued to organize their upcoming fundraiser banquet for the foundation.
"(Vincent) told me in August ... 'Mom, if I don't make it, I still want you guys to do this," Kristin said. "He would not want us to not do it or sit and stew because he just never was that himself."
On Feb. 1, they hosted the banquet at the Frazee Event Center. As attendants ate, Dr. Melanie Chihak spoke, followed by Thaddeus talking about Vincent and the foundation.
"I was just impressed at how well and how awesome your speech was at the banquet," Kristin said, looking at Thaddeus. "There's no way I could have done that. That was amazing."
Through the ticket sales and silent auction, they raised more than $7,000 for the foundation.
Family connections through the foundation
As the Helmers help these families, they develop close relationships with them. One of the families even attended the banquet.
"You build relationships with the parents. You just do," Kristin said. "You have that bond with them that nobody else can understand."
Their goal this first year of the foundation is to help 12 families. Once they find the five families to help with what they raised at the banquet, they will be over halfway there with eight families.
"We're going to hit it," Thaddeus said. "Actually, I think we're going to surpass it."
Helping these families go through exactly what they were going through is both hard and therapeutic for the Helmers.
"I think it's therapeutic because we can help somebody else that was in our situation when we were going through it," Kristin said. "Sometime's it's hard though. We are grieving. Sometimes it's hard to see, kind of, who lives. In all reality, I really enjoy doing it."
Contact the Stand By Me Foundation: