- Associated Press - Sunday, May 8, 2016

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. (AP) - Members of the congregation at St. James the Greater Catholic church in Charles Town have spent the past three months preparing for a May 20 concert dedicated to children who attend the church who have dealt with cancer at an early age.

According to Angie Cummings of Kearneysville, who is organizing the St. Philomena Medical Benefit Concert, scheduled for May 20, proceeds from the concert will go into the Father McGivney Fund. Cummings said the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternity that established the Father McGivney Fund, chooses a charitable cause to support through the Fund each year, and she said in recent years, cancer has been the cause of choice.

“A few years ago, (the Knights of Columbus) fundraised for kids with cancer. The money from the Father McGivney fund was used to cover any expenses that insurance doesn’t cover. That year, they contributed to three kids and their families at St. James the Greater,” Cummings said.

This year, she said, a young mother of four who has leukemia has been selected as the beneficiary of the Father McGivney Fund. When planning the St. Philomena Medical Benefit Concert, Cummings said she kept all of the children at the church and in the community who have struggled with cancer in mind, and chose to dedicate the event to them.

“We have these kids who’ve been battling cancer, and it’s such a different reality for them and their families,” Cummings said. “We dedicated the concert to them. Hearing the great stories of the kids inspired us to pay it forward and help this other family.”

Jennifer Ward, of Charles Town, whose four-year-old son, Gabriel, was diagnosed with retinoblastoma at the age of 18 months, said her family was among the past beneficiaries of the Father McGivney Fund.

Retinoblastoma is cancer of one or both retinas in the eyes, and Ward said Gabriel had it in both of his eyes. She said the next two and a half years of Gabriel’s life were spent in and out of hospitals and doctor’s offices.

“There’s no evidence of the disease right now, but we’ve been going to checkups and treatments for him,” Ward said. “We spent the first eight months (after Gabriel’s diagnosis) going to Baltimore to Johns Hopkins for treatment. We got to the point where they couldn’t do anything else to help him. They didn’t have any medicine or treatment that would cure his cancer.”

Around that time, Ward said she reconnected with a friend from college, who suggested she take Gabriel to Sloan Kettering in New York. Ward said the doctors at Johns Hopkins recommended removing Gabriel’s left eye, and she wanted a second opinion.

The doctors at Sloan Kettering were able to save Gabriel’s eye, though he is now blind in his left eye. Ward said they still make regular trips to Manhattan, and she said the money from the Father McGivney Fund was used, in her case, to cover the gas it took to make the trip.

In addition to financial support through the Father McGivney Fund, Ward said her faith-and the spiritual and emotional support from the congregation at St. James-helped her get through that difficult experience.

“I believe that whatever happens, even if I’m in a difficult situation or I can’t see my way out of what’s going on, ultimately, it’s all going to work out for the best,” Ward said. “There were times when I couldn’t pray, but I knew other people were praying for me. I had that community of faith lifting me and my family up.”

Rosalia Hernandez, a 14-year-old from Charles Town, said she was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 13. She said April 17 marked two years since her fight against cancer began.

Hernandez, whose parents are migrants from Mexico who do not speak English, said her family was also selected as beneficiaries of the Father McGivney Fund in the past.

“It was scary at first (to find out I had leukemia) because I didn’t know anything about it,” Hernandez said. “I thought I was going to die. I lost hope and faith that I was going to get better, at first. Then, with the help of everyone else from church, I started to feel better.”

Hernandez said she was having difficulty dealing with the loss of her hair from monthly chemotherapy treatments, and she said it took her a long time to realize that people cared about her. Like Ward, Hernandez said it was the support of members of the church that helped her see beyond her fear and depression.

“At first, when I thought I was going to die, I didn’t want to live anymore,” she said. “My parents were the ones who were telling me that just because I had cancer, people wouldn’t stop liking me. They said everyone at church was praying for me, that the people at church loved me.”

Rachel Bishop, whose daughter, Madison, was diagnosed with bone cancer in her leg at the age of eight, said her family also received money from the Father McGivney Fund to assist with Madison’s treatment.

Bishop said Madison had fallen while playing outside in April of 2014. Though Bishop took Madison to the doctor when she said she was feeling pain in her left leg, both the doctors and Bishop thought Madison had injured her leg. Later, doctors discovered an aggressive tumor growing in the bone of Madison’s left leg.

“I don’t think any parent is prepared to hear that their child has cancer,” Bishop said. “For my family, it was a heightened situation because I was pregnant with my fifth child and my husband was out of town. We kept taking Madison to the doctor, and they thought it was a muscle injury. I felt like it was more, but I expected it to be a fracture in her leg. After she had an X-ray, they wouldn’t read the results to me over the phone, and told me to come to the office instead. Right then, I knew something was wrong.”

Madison spent the next nine months receiving chemotherapy at Inova Fairfax Hospital. Bishop said surgeons removed most of her femur and knee and replaced the bone with a metal prosthetic. Madison still goes to physical therapy two to three times a week.

“She’s doing better now, but there’s always that fear that it could come back,” Bishop said.

Cummings said contemporary Christian singer Matt Maher will be the headlining act for the concert, with John Tibbs and Army of Me opening for Maher. Maher has been nominated for a Grammy four times, and Cummings said it was discouraging to try and get the well-known artist to perform at St. James because of the cost. Though she said she felt like giving up in January, Cummings said members of the church and the community have stepped up to donate both their money and their services-including the construction of a special stage for the event and meals for the 30 volunteers who will be staffing the concert.

“After the concert, the kids will get a chance to go backstage and meet (Maher),” Cummings said. “Whatever money we make, we will just pay it forward to the next family. There are so many people dealing with cancer, and this is not just a concert. I think that really gives (the event) a meaning.”

The St. Philomena Medical Benefit Concert will be held outdoors at St. James the Greater Catholic Church, located at 49 Crosswinds Drive in Charles Town on May 20. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. and the concert will begin at 6:30.

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Information from: The Journal, http://journal-news.net/

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