In early 2012, Ryan Sterns found out his 5-year-old niece, Faith Canfield, had acute lymphocytic leukemia.
Sterns soon realized that his sister’s family would incur significant financial challenges because of the illness, so he decided to start a charity.
As a runner, Sterns’ yearly fitness goals included the Race to Robie Creek, and the “toughest half-marathon in the Northwest” seemed like an appropriate metaphor for Faith’s battle. So he decided to run the same route on the day after he had already run the official Robie race. He initially called his run Robie’s Got Faith.
A team of friends supported Sterns’ vision, and he and his running partners raised some much-needed financial support for Faith and her family. The group started the paperwork to become a nonprofit organization and created a website so that supporters could follow Faith’s journey.
To avoid confusion with the Race to Robie Creek, though, the board of that race, the Rocky Canyon Sail Toads, asked Sterns to consider changing the name of his charity. That’s when inspiration struck. The new name? Boise’s Got Faith.
The Sail Toads also signed on to become supporters and to make yearly donations to the cause.
Sterns knew his group’s efforts would make a difference.
“You have young families who haven’t got huge investments and are just trying to establish themselves. They are often living paycheck to paycheck and then they get blindsided with cancer,” he said. “Even when a family has health insurance, there are other expenses that aren’t covered — hotel stays, meals away from home, travel to and from treatment, babysitting for other siblings — all of these things that compound their financial burden.”
It’s about the kids
The following January, the group selected another benefactor — 9-year-old Lula Coe — who was fighting stage IV Wilms Tumors in her lungs. Each year since, the nonprofit has adopted two more children and their families as beneficiaries:
▪ 2014 — Linzi Shoemaker was 2 when she was diagnosed with a stage IV pediatric cancer called Neuroblastoma (a tumor cancer of the nervous system).
▪ 2014 — Brylee Gabby was 7 when was she was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia, a rare form of leukemia in children.
▪ 2015 — Alanna Schiffhauer was 4 when she was diagnosed with stage IV neuroblastoma.
▪ 2015 — Brynlee Nebeker was 6 when she was diagnosed with ALL.
▪ 2016 — Eloise Lawrence was 2 when she was diagnosed with ALL.
▪ 2016 — Franky Campos was 3 he was diagnosed with high-risk (type b) ALL.
The alumni and their families all have stayed involved in the charity as those who have already gone through it help support the new families each year.
Event has grown
The yearly spring race moved from the Boise Foothills to Boise’s parks and Greenbelt in 2014. Instead of a half-marathon run by a few runners, the annual event now includes a kids one-mile run, a 5K run/walk, a silent auction as well as many games, activities and a catered meal. Each of the sponsored children, including the alumni, have their own activity or craft table for other kids attending the park on race day to enjoy. This year, the race earned more than $45,000.
A unique attribute of BGF is that 100 percent of the donations — every dollar from the race registrations, auction items and other gifts — goes to the sponsored children and their families. The nonprofit has supporters who cover all of the overhead expenses to make this possible — including the race-day T-shirts, the catered lunch, rental of the bounce houses, park reservations, permits and more. No one from the organization takes a paycheck. All of the volunteers donate their time and talents because they believe these kids deserve a chance to live and to live well.
And what about Faith? She’s been cancer-free since June 2014 and is a fourth-grader in Meridian. Of the eight children sponsored by BGF, seven of them are in remission or currently in treatment.
In February 2014, Lula Coe passed away at home, surrounded by her family and friends, Sterns among them.
Lula’s mom, Kat Smith, was moved to tears when asked about the support from Boise’s Got Faith.
“While she was with us, they helped us provide some amazing things for our little girl. They helped us purchase a reliable vehicle so the family could drive down to see Lula and I when we were in Salt Lake for months at a time in treatment,” she said. “They also helped us get a fireplace into our home because our heat was so expensive. BGF handled all of the details, and we moved Lula’s bed out beside the fireplace when it was completed. When we knew that she didn’t have much time left, BGF took Lula shopping so she could buy her family Christmas presents. Then they helped us throw an early holiday celebration for her and it became a huge, wonderful event.”
Kat breaks down again remembering Lula’s memorial service. “Honestly, I couldn’t tell you based on my experience what steps to take to prepare for a funeral,” she said. “Ryan and his team took care of everything for us. They arranged for the transportation of her body when she passed, they set things up with the funeral home and with the church where we held the service, everything. They just gave us the space to grieve.”
Attitude of gratitude
Sterns brushes off any recognition of his efforts.
“This thing has always been way bigger than me, and I don’t take any credit for it,” he said. “When we first started this charity, I thought we would make a couple thousand dollars for my niece, and here we are going into our sixth year, and we’ve raised over $250,000 for these families. This wouldn’t have happened without all of the volunteers that play way bigger roles than I do.
“There are some beautiful hearts that are helping us surround these families as a community and let them know that all of these little expenses coming at them — we’ve got this — that bill has been paid.”
This is the first article in a five-part series about local organizations that formed to help patients and families cope with cancer diagnoses. Look for part two next Sunday in Explore. Chad Estes is a Boise photographer and writer who is an active cancer advocate. He volunteers his photography skills every year for Boise’s Got Faith events.