When La Toya Johnson’s daughter Yuntasha was diagnosed in 2005 with neuroblastoma, a type of brain cancer, she struggled to take her child to the hospital for her chemotherapy appointments multiple days each week. Because they lived across town from the hospital, Johnson had to take a combination of buses and trolleys and then walk with her daughter for the last leg of the journey.
That all changed once she discovered Ride With Emilio, the flagship program of a nonprofit organization called the Emilio Nares Foundation. ENF partners with Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego to provide transportation to appointments and hospital visits for families who have children with cancer. Richard Nares and his wife Diane co-founded ENF after they lost their five-year-old son Emilio to acute lymphoblastic leukemia. “During Emilio’s treatment, we realized how fortunate we were to have friends and family to give us a ride if we needed it, bring us hot food and support us. We met many families who didn’t have that,” says Nares.
After his son passed away, Nares began speaking to the families of newly diagnosed children, but soon realized there was a need for more help. He started the foundation and used his own car at first to transport parents and children to the hospital, but the need quickly outgrew his resources. So he applied for grants to raise money and within about a year, he purchased five vans and began Ride With Emilio in 2005.
The foundation provides more than 4,500 rides per year, putting 100,000-plus miles a year on the vans. They collaborate closely with Rady; the hospital organizes appointments so that the vans can pick up families in each area of San Diego on a certain day. Nares says the families find support from each other during the rides as well. “They can feel like they’re not alone.”
Margaret Fitzgerald, R.N., is the charge nurse for Rady Children’s Hospital’s oncology unit. “Before the partnership with ENF, many of our patients were missing their treatment appointments due to lack of transportation,” she says. “If they weren’t able to make it to chemo, they were not only missing that valuable appointment, but it impacts their survival.” She says that while treatment length varies depending on diagnosis, most patients have ongoing treatment for six to nine months, which can involve inpatient admissions for chemotherapy as well as clinic appointments for chemo, bloodwork and checkups. Those appointments often are scheduled two to three times per week.
Fitzgerald says the foundation has been a valuable resource for their families. “We couldn’t do the work we do without them,” she adds. “They’re so easy to work with, so dedicated to our patients and their families — and it’s constant dedication with no wavering. I can’t speak highly enough of them.” ENF is the only external group that works with Rady Children’s Hospital. Nares has been in communication with other hospitals and found that transportation is a widespread issue. The foundation is currently working on expanding to other hospitals across the country, and recently added a second driver to its Orange County (Calif.) operations.
Johnson says the foundation’s support has been a lifeline. Her daughter had a period of remission but, in 2015, she was diagnosed with a Stage 4 glioma, so they’ve been using Ride With Emilio for a total of more than nine years now.
“What I love most is that the staff understand what I’m going through," she says. "A lot of them have gone through the same thing, having a family member or child with cancer. It helps me feel like I’m not alone.”
Besides the rides themselves, she appreciates the events and fundraisers held by ENF, which provide additional chances to connect with other families who are going through the same thing. And she and her daughter have developed relationships with many of the drivers.
“Some of them have known my kids since they were little,” she says. “More than receiving a ride — it’s family.”