When Kerri Steele, her husband, Will, and their children moved to Frisco in 2009, they didn’t know that their lives would soon be rocked by a diagnosis no one is ever prepared for: cancer. Will Steele was a young man in the prime of his life. In 2009, he was a healthy, 33-year-old long-distance runner who often cycled to work. But after seeing the doctor for a puzzling lump on his neck, and many tests later, the Steele family received the devastating news that Will had an extremely rare and terminal form of cancer called desmoplastic small round cell tumors, or DSRCT, a type of soft tissue sarcoma. Since it was first identified in 1989, only about 200 cases of DSRCT have been diagnosed, primarily in children, making Will’s diagnosis of a rare form of cancer rarer still. Will, his family and his doctors immediately began the fight for his life.
The Steele family’s journey from Louisiana to Texas began after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which left their New Orleans home flooded and roofless. Fortunately, the family had already been considering relocating to Texas and Will had already received a job offer in Dallas. They made their way to Frisco in 2009 after a few years of living and working in Dallas. It was shortly after their move, in February 2010, that Will received his DSRCT diagnosis. Will and Kerri’s three children, Page, Emma and Liam were ages six, four and two at the time. As Kerri and the kids began trying to cope with Will’s diagnosis and prognosis, Kerri realized that she needed help in navigating the unfamiliar and extremely traumatic position they found themselves in. Kerri remembers thinking, “This is big, and I just don’t know how to help my kids with it. How do you talk to your kids about their father dying?”
After much prayer, Kerri and Will decided to enroll all three kids in play therapy with a local Frisco therapist. Kerri said she wanted the kids to begin building a relationship with a therapist early on, before their father passed away, in the hope they’d feel comfortable sharing with her when the time came. It was during this time – between being a mom to three small kids, the wife of a sick husband and traveling between Frisco and MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston every three weeks – that Kerri realized there is very little research, literature and information on how to help young kids cope with watching a close family member die from cancer. There were “no books for this,” so Kerri and the children’s therapist began doing the best they could to help the kids develop healthy coping mechanisms for the influx of new and difficult emotions they were feeling.
In March 2012, Will underwent extensive surgery to remove 268 cancerous tumors from the soft tissue of his abdomen. After a series of surgical complications, more chemo and a tell-tale broken leg, Will and Kerri found out that Will’s cancer had mutated and metastasized to his bones, leaving him with virtually no functioning bone marrow. A few months later, in August 2012, Will and Kerri made the difficult decision to stop Will’s cancer treatment and undertake hospice care. On Christmas Eve just a few short months later, Will passed away after a three-year battle with DSRCT. Will was 36 years old and his children were just nine, seven and five. Kerri said that the hardest part of the process was not being able to protect her children from what was happening or to take away their pain. Kerri said that all three children processed the illness and death of their father differently and had individual emotional needs and challenges. She was extremely thankful to have been able to lay a foundational relationship with a play therapist to help them through such a difficult time.
About a year after Will’s passing, Kerri began spending much time in prayer and fasting, seeking God’s will and next steps for her family. She said that while she was actively seeking employment, God consistently put opportunities for volunteer work in her path. While the newly single mom knew volunteerism and non-profit work wouldn’t pay the family bills, Kerri chose to trust God and His nudges. She remembers thinking, “What’s the harm? The worst has already happened.” Kerri’s ultimate goal as a parent is to raise her children to follow God, and she knew that to lead them well, their family must allow God to use their broken hearts to help others, even through their own pain and grief. With this knowledge, Kerri kept coming back to her days of feeling lost in how to help her children cope with their father’s illness, and the Holy Spirit used those memories to ignite an idea in Kerri about a program that would help not only her kids but countless others.
Kerri states that there are so few resources to help grieving children and private counseling is often expensive and cost restrictive; she knew there must be a better way to show God’s love to hurting children and families and to support them through the darkest time of their lives. Kerri took her idea to the Dallas-based Stronghold Ministry, a cancer and support ministry. She hoped that they would simply take her idea and incorporate it into their existing cancer support work. But Kerri left with an offer: Stronghold Ministry loved her idea and wanted her to spearhead its implementation. Kerri said she was shocked because beyond having no expectation to be involved beyond presenting her idea, she also had no previous non-profit or fundraising experience. After much prayer, Kerri knew the opportunity could only be coming from God, who had consistently been laying volunteer and non-profit opportunities in front of her. Kerri accepted the opportunity to organize and fundraise for her cancer support idea and went on to raise over $20,000, primarily from individuals who saw the merit and blessing in the program, in the first three months. Thus, Little Hearts of Hope was born.
After a few months, Stronghold Ministries realized that Little Hearts of Hope needed its own home as the popularity and fundraising ability of the program made it better suited to be its own non-profit entity. Once again, Kerri was faced with a decision: should she trust God to take Little Hearts of Hope out on its own, with her at the helm? Kerri said that despite her trepidation and lack of experience, it was obvious that this was God’s plan for her and Little Hearts of Hope. In August 2014, Little Hearts of Hope was approved as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with Kerri as its executive director.
A little more than six years later, Little Hearts of Hope is operating at maximum capacity, serving 100 children, ages four through 14, across the country each month. The children Little Hearts of Hope serves are either the children of a parent undergoing cancer treatment or the healthy siblings of a child undergoing cancer treatment. Each month for one year, the children in the program receive a Hope Package from Little Hearts of Hope. These packages include hands-on activities to guide the children in putting words to their feelings and emotions and teaching them healthy coping mechanisms through creative expression. The parent’s guide in each package includes scripture and background on what God says about the deep emotions their kids may be experiencing. Parents can then guide their kids through the creative expression activities included in that month’s Hope Package. For example, Kerri says that one complex emotion that often comes up for the healthy siblings of a sick child is jealousy. While it may seem counterintuitive to adults, many children can feel jealous over the amount of attention a sick sibling may receive, an emotion that can be just as confusing to the child as to his parents. The materials included in the Jealousy Hope Package give parents concrete ideas and hands-on activities to facilitate their children in processing what they’re feeling.
While the activities themselves are not faith-based, Kerri hopes that families will use the scriptural and spiritual elements included in the packages. Little Hearts of Hope believes that only God can heal hurting and broken hearts and that turning to Him in times of trouble is vital. In every child’s final Hope Package, Little Hearts of Hope provides a Bible with all the verses from the previous year’s packages highlighted and dated. Also included is a highlighter in hopes that the family will continue reading and studying, relying on God and being reminded of how often He provides comfort, direction and wisdom in His word. Little Hearts of Hope wants their families to know that their ultimate hope is found in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and that apart from that there is no help or healing.
Like many other non-profit organizations, the last year has not been kind to Little Hearts of Hope. While the global pandemic has shone a light on the importance of mental health and the scarcity of resources to meet people’s emotional needs, it has simultaneously dwindled funds and means for organizations like Little Hearts of Hope to operate optimally. Currently, the organization is operating at capacity out of Kerri’s home, where she and her children work to collect, package and ship each month’s Hope Packages at their kitchen table. As a result of the decrease in donations and manpower, there are many cancer-impacted families on the waitlist, hoping for their children to be enrolled as other children rotate out after their 12-month programs end.
Little Hearts of Hope has several needs at this time, including corporate sponsors, compassionate and knowledgeable people to become committee members and fill board seats, as well as donations from individuals and organizations within Frisco and beyond. Donations to Little Hearts of Hope are accepted in several ways, including sponsoring a child for $35 a month, conducting a supply drive for needed materials, or hosting a packing party to package and cover shipping costs of Hope Packages. Another way to support the children and families in the Little Hearts of Hope program is to volunteer as a prayer partner. Each month, Kerri sends out a list of specific prayer requests collected from families in the program to those who have signed up as Little Hearts prayer partners.
Kerri’s faith and obedience to God not only helped her family in the devastating loss of her husband and her children’s father, but it also paved a way to help many other families and children deal with the myriad of emotions that comes with cancer diagnoses. Kerri proves that through prayer, faith and obedience, even during difficult, challenging times, God is always present and faithful.
If you or your organization would like to get involved with Little Hearts of Hope through becoming a corporate sponsor, donating needed items, giving of your time and finances or simply committing to pray for hurting families, visit LittleHeartsOfHope.org. Likewise, if your family is facing a cancer diagnosis and there are small children involved, you can also sign up for Little Hearts of Hope services via the website.
Amy Kryzak is a wife, mom and blogger who loves connecting fellow moms, food in all shapes and forms and loves all things Frisco.