by Jason P. Smith
Santa Claus recently made a stop at Brent’s Place’s weekly Family Night to visit with kids, hand out some gifts and, most of all, spread some laughter and smiles. Having Santa come to visit with the kids is just one of many planned activities and programs offered at Brent’s Place, which extends a helping hand to families fighting illnesses.
Brent’s Place, located within a few blocks of both The Children’s Hospital of Denver and Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center, offers a help to families with a child fighting cancer.
The foundation was started by the parents of Brent Eley. Brent was diagnosed with rhabdo-myo-sarcoma in 1987 when he was 13. Because of the aggressive nature of the disease, Brent needed a bone marrow transplant, but those were not being done at that time in Denver, according to Adele Gelfand, executive director of Brent’s Place.
After going to Iowa City for the transplant, Brent succumbed to an infection related to the transplant and died in Oct. 1988.
After their son’s death, Linda and Donn Eley decided to help other families in similar situations by providing a place for them to stay.
"They wanted to be involved in doing something for other children in similar situations," Gelfand said of Brent’s parents. "They formed the foundation in 1997 and opened the doors in 1998.
"When it first opened, Brent’s Place had four apartments in one building and now we have 13 apartments in two buildings, including apartments by the new Fitzsimons campus," Gelfand said. "All of the apartments are fully furnished and equipped as individual, self-contained living units. By the nature of the cancer treatment, the kids are highly immuno-compromised and can’t come and go much, so it’s important that they have everything they need."
A large percentage of the patients who stay at Brent’s Place are bone marrow transplant patients, but there also are many patients with chronic cancer, such as brain tumors, who stay at Brent’s Place because of its close proximity to the hospitals and its close attention to keeping the environment clean for the immuno-compromised patients. Brent’s Place offers a home away from home, so to speak, for many families outside of Denver or Colorado.
Being away from friends and family back home, the families staying at Brent’s Place can become a source of community and strength for each other when they get together for activities.
In addition to offering a place to stay, Brent’s Place also has a variety of programs for both the kids with cancer and the siblings of kids with cancer as well. "The siblings often don’t get much attention while a brother or sister is going through treatment," Gelfand said. "We take it upon ourselves to try and do something special for these kids as well."
"We never really know when people are going to arrive and we never really know when they’re going to leave," Donn Eley said. "This makes it tough – sometimes we’ll reserve a room for a family and then they’ll show up two weeks later. Or, a family will be ready to leave and something happens and the child gets sick and they have to stay longer."
"We’ve had a family stay as long as 11 months," Gelfand said. "It always seems to work out. We work closely with other facilities in the area and it always seems to work."
"Unlike the Ronald McDonald House, which serves a much broader population, we are in a way saving our rooms for a certain patient population," Donn Eley said.
Funding for Brent’s Place is generated primarily through four annual fundraisers, grants and private donors. There are no specific qualifications for stay other than the patient must live 60 miles away from the medical staff, which is basically outside the city.
"We help the families in any way we can," Gelfand said. "We support them in a friendship sort of way rather than any formal counseling – sometimes that’s what they really need."
When talking about the Children’s hospital moving to Fitzsimons, Donn Eley said they will be at Fitzsimons and likely keep some apartments at their current location. "I hope there will be a time in the future where kids won’t get cancer," he said.
"This place has been awesome," said Sten Johnson who is staying at Brent’s Place with his wife, Erin, and their daughter, Madilyn Rose Johnson, 20 months. The family from Santa Fe came to Denver so their daughter could get a bone marrow transplant and will likely be in the area for another month. "The people here have been so generous and helpful – it’s really been a Godsend."