The holidays were joyful for 7-year-old Ruben Contreras two years ago while he was being treated for a rare brain tumor at UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, even though the family’s reality was grim and Ruben’s prognosis, grave.
“We spent 12 months here,” said his mother, Judy. “I observed the children, the families and pain everyone was going through. The days before Christmas when kids were getting toys stood out to me. My son was so happy that day. The radiation, the chemo − none of it mattered that day.”
After Ruben’s death, in July 2017, the Christmas memory lingered for the Contreras family, who live in Woodland. And that’s why they poured their grief into collecting hundreds of dolls, books, toy cars, arts and crafts materials and other goodies for families just like them.
At 6 a.m. Thursday, they delivered those gifts to the pediatric oncology clinic at the Cancer Center, stocking the makeshift “store” that families can visit during their appointments with children facing a cancer diagnosis.
Jenny Belke, the child life specialist who created the holiday store concept three years ago, turned a consult room at the clinic into the temporary store, now packed with toys, all sorted and stacked. Through Dec. 24 families checking in to the clinic or infusion room for chemotherapy can walk in, select a book, stuffed animal and a toy for each of their children. She said items that are not given away by Christmas will be given to children in the clinic on other occasions throughout 2019.
Judy Contreras, who stays home caring for a severely disabled daughter and also has an 11-year-old son, remembers how special Cancer Center gifts were during her son’s treatment, as well as the compassionate care the family received.
"They made us feel comfortable, like we were at home," shesaid. "They helped us accept what was unacceptable. They carried us through the journey. We got great treatment and support we will never forget."
During Ruben’s treatment at the Cancer Center, the family set up a Facebook page called Prayers for Ruben, which quickly gained followers. From there, Judy Contreras launched Ruben’s Christmas Elves Toy Drive, all for the benefit of UC Davis pediatric cancer patients and families, and to celebrate the memory of her son. This year, gifts came in from supporters and friends via Amazon from as far away as London.
“I do this with all my heart,” she said. “This is my Christmas present to Ruben. I know he can see it and feel it from heaven.”