Nathaniel Peña passed away in 2013 after losing his fight with bone cancer. Now, Christiana Mingura is on the board of the newly formed nonprofit, Families Fighting Cancer Together to help other local families with children battling cancer.

Christiana Mingura couldn’t pay her mortgage while her child underwent chemotherapy in 2012. Thanks to help from another Gila Valley family, she kept her house. Now other local families could get that same kind of help.

Mingura’s little boy, Nathaniel Peña, was seven when he was first diagnosed with bone cancer. She remembered the day she realized something was wrong vividly, she said. It was the night before he went to his first day of second grade. After her little boy repeatedly complained his arm hurt, she took him to the emergency room that night for a scan.

“They showed me the scan. You could see where the tumor was eating the bone,” she said. “They told me, and I cried and cried.”

At the time, Mingura was a single parent and living in Safford. She had to quit her job to take care of her son. Although she applied for Social Security, she was told the money would take several months to reach her. The repeated trips to Phoenix Children’s Hospital quickly drained her bank account and when her situation seemed dire, the Hatch family, who also lived in the Gila Valley, stepped in.

While at the Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Carson Hatch, who was being treated for cancer, overheard Mingura in the next room.

“He said, ‘Dad, we gotta help her,’” Carson’s father, Luke, said.

The Hatch family had money from some fundraising efforts for Carson and they decided to give a portion to Mingura.

“They gave us some money and it was enough for the house payment. And they stayed with us throughout Nathaniel’s journey. They were a family who reached out. I have a great family, but sometimes you want another family who has walked in your shoes,” she said.

Carson Hatch passed away in 2012 and Nathaniel lost his battle the following year, but the bond between the families has stayed strong. Luke Hatch came up with the idea of starting a nonprofit, Families Fighting Cancer Together, in 2020 and asked Mingura if she was interested in being on the board and she agreed.

Once the nonprofit gains momentum and funding, it will help families of children going through cancer treatment with gas cards and monetary donations. However, the fellowship and support the organization will also provide are priceless, Mingura said.

“Sometimes you want another family who has walked in your shoes,” she said. “I want to provide a little bit of hope during the darkest times other families ever experience. To be that glimmer of hope.”

Families Fighting Cancer Together held its first board meeting on Feb. 13 and is in the middle of applying for funding from the United Way of Graham Greenlee Counties, Hatch said.

Having money to help families take their children to chemotherapy appointments hours away is one primary aim for the nonprofit, Hatch said.

“There isn’t a place locally where children can receive cancer treatments,” he said.

Treatments and visits out of town can vary from once a month to multiple times a month. It all depends on the cancer treatment plan. He said this unexpected traveling expense takes parents away from jobs and stresses the family’s income greatly.

Once a family fills out a form and provides a signed note from a doctor proving their child has cancer, the organization will help the family financially.

Hatch said the nonprofit has already reached out to a local family whose child is being treated for cancer. A family can be referred to the nonprofit for assistance through their website.

The foundation has two fundraisers planned over the upcoming months, Hatch said. At the end of March, the group intends to hold a dinner and silent auction and in April there will be a five-mile race.

“I hope we can get enough donations to help these families. Most insurance covers 90% to 80%, and we want to help cover what insurance doesn’t,” Hatch said. “It all depends on donations and what we can accumulate from the communities.”

Whatever donations they receive will go directly to families, Hatch said. If a child needs crutches or a wheelchair, the foundation will do its best to help the families obtain these items.

“I see it and I just want to help. My heart goes out to these kids,” Hatch said. “We’re hoping to start off with a credit card for $200 for gas and food for the first week to cover unexpected expenses.”

Dr. Kathleen van Leeuwen is also on the board and has a personal connection with the Hatch family. She specializes in pediatric surgery and operated on Carson Hatch roughly 15 times, forming a strong relationship with his family. Despite living in Phoenix and working at the Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Leeuwen is deeply connected to the nonprofit.

“It’s a unique family. They weren’t second-guessing what we were doing. Most families don’t see how doctors fit in. The medical doctors were just as close to Carson and his family as I was,” she said.

When Carson passed, the family let Leeuwen grieve Carson’s passing with them, she said. It is not common for a family to help a doctor in this way, she said. This emotional connection, and the belief the organization can help rural families, is why she wants to help.

“They will be using fundraisers and will be bringing the community together physically to support you and your family,” she said. “It’s that community connection. They want to shower support and love through community connections. This group of organizers is very energized, and I’m looking forward to getting together with them.”

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