June 9, 2014

Hilmar teen, community rally to help girl, 7, with Stage 4 cancer

When 14-year-old Erin Benning decided to help Hilmar second-grader Kaiden Pacheco, who has cancer, an unlikely friendship developed and a community rallied to her cause.

Everyone should have an angel like Erin Benning.

When the 14-year-old heard about a sick second-grader at Elim Elementary School in Hilmar, where her mother is the school district health aide, Erin was moved to help.

“I wanted to do more than pray,” she said.

Erin’s efforts and the plight of Kaiden Pacheco have captured the collective heart of the close-knit Merced County community and have snowballed into $12,000 in the two months since Kaiden’s diagnosis of Stage 4 rhabdomyosarcoma, a malignant tumor that attacks muscles.

“We’re really, really blessed to have this person in our lives,” said Stephanie Pacheco, Kaiden’s mother. “For Erin to open her arms in this manner, we’re amazed.”

Pacheco said her daughter developed a fever after a March 27 visit to the dentist, and the cancer was discovered April 9. The tumor is attached to Kaiden’s liver and has worked through her diaphragm, she said. Erin’s mother, Catherine Benning, elaborated that the tumor was pushing on Kaiden’s heart and causing the youngster to be short of breath.

Kaiden, 7, is in the ninth week of a 42-week chemotherapy treatment, Pacheco said, and the tumor has shrunk to half its original size.

Once the tumor is reduced further and stabilizes, surgery to remove it would be possible, she said.

Doctors at Children’s Hospital Central California in Madera perform a CT scan every four weeks or so, she said, with another scheduled in a month, to gauge the tumor’s size.

Going ‘above and beyond’

For a young person to want to help someone is one thing, but those who know Erin will agree when Pacheco says, “She’s gone above and beyond.”

Erin, an incoming freshman at Hilmar High, has befriended Kaiden, who just finished second grade and is half Erin’s age.

“They’re like little BFFs,” said Pacheco. “She has a lifelong friend in Erin, regardless of age.”

Erin has become a constant as Stephanie and Paul Pacheco juggle jobs – she’s a sales rep for Stewart Title, he a manager for Alfred Matthews Collision Center – Kaiden’s cancer treatments and the demands of 3-year-old daughter Karagyn.

“She comes over and offers to play with her,” Pacheco said of Erin and Kaiden’s budding friendship.

And Kaiden’s texts are a testament to the power of their friendship. One reads, “I thank God for you.”

Erin is the first to admit that she’s stepped outside her comfort zone the past two months. She described herself as quiet, though persistent.

“If I were to put myself in that position,” she said, “I know I would want that help.”

Erin’s fundraising to help the Pachecos with medical costs started with putting up fliers around Hilmar and posting on Facebook. Elim Elementary stepped in with a “Kuarters for Kaiden” campaign, with the school bringing in $5,000 of the $12,000. A special fundraising event for Kaiden was held Monday evening at Pizza Plus in Hilmar.

Kaiden’s cause has struck a chord that also moved through the Modesto Nuts clubhouse, thanks to Erin’s activism. The Bennings are longtime baseball and Nuts fans, and this summer are the host family for Modesto first baseman Jordan Ribera.

Ribera, watching what his host sister was busy doing in addition to preparing for her eighth-grade graduation, was awed by what Erin was able to accomplish in such a short time. “This is an eighth-grade girl who is pretty quiet, but she’s gone above and beyond just because she cares about other people,” Ribera said.

“I decided my duty was to share that with the guys in this clubhouse. We’re fortunate to be playing this game, and to give back is the least we can do. I brought it up to the guys and set a goal early of maybe getting about a couple hundred dollars. We autographed a bat, signed a few balls as a team and coach (Dave) Burba signed balls that will be auctioned off. The next thing I know, guys are dishing out money and we have $1,150.”

And you have to think that no matter the outcome, Erin and Kaiden suddenly have found 25 new big brothers for life.

“I just saw this as a good opportunity for us to give back, and it’s good for the Nuts to put the baseball aspect of this aside,” Ribera said. “We don’t make anything playing baseball, but at the end of the day, all of this is for a better cause. It’s for a little girl who has to deal with so much, like going through chemo every week.

“I’m proud of the guys for stepping up. I was shocked to see how much the guys gave and I know their families will appreciate it. It’s quite humbling to me that the guys in here took this cause to heart.”

Ribera had goose bumps Saturday morning when he was able to show Erin what the team had kicked in.

“It was special to see the look on Erin’s face after all the work that she’s put in,” Ribera said. “This is a huge deal for an eighth-grader to take on this responsibility, and I’m so proud of her.”

A fund for Kaiden has been set up through Farmers & Merchants Bank.

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