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Calm Harbor

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Editor’s note: Today, the Journal wraps up its annual Help for the Holidays series, which spotlights areas where community members can reach out to neighbors in need.

Monica R. Rodriguez watches her daughter sleep every night surrounded by the whirring, beeping machines that keep the girl alive through her leukemia treatment.

Eight-year-old Aaliyah Rodriguez can’t sleep with all the noise, her mom says. She’s having a hard time with the treatment, “but she’s a tough little girl,” says her dad, Mercedes M. Rodriguez. “She’s a little daredevil. She can get you in a headlock.”

But Aaliyah’s parents can’t both stay with her in the hospital all the time, nor can they go back and forth from the hospital to their home in Artesia, where they have four other children.

The Rodriguezes, along with about 29,000 other families since 1992, turned to Casa Esperanza. The program offers a home away from home for up to 108 people a night, all of whom are either family members of cancer patients or are cancer patients. But it’s not just a hotel — it also offers a community kitchen and dining room, a laundry room, play areas for kids and sitting areas for adults, as well as a patient navigator service to help people cope with cancer and a shuttle to take them to appointments at University of New Mexico Children’s Hospital.

“It’s really quiet,” Monica Rodriguez says. “I like it a lot.”

Casa Esperanza caters to patients in tough spots, says Eileen Cook, Casa Esperanza’s chief executive officer. Much of the standard treatment for cancer is available in communities outside of Albuquerque, she says; people who need to come to the UNM Health Sciences Center and Cancer Center for treatment tend to be adults with recurrent cancer or children.

“It’s hard for people to visualize, but people have to leave their home communities to come to Albuquerque,” Cook says. “They leave every possible support at home.”

That’s where Casa Esperanza comes in, she says. “We’re more than just a housing facility. We’re a care organization. We really work to see that the needs of our families are met.”

The house has 28 rooms and suites, says Maryle Barber, development director.

The rooms are warm but sparse, like hotel rooms, with donated Tempur-Pedic mattresses and donated TVs. Each room has a private bathroom.

“It’s not fancy, but it’s clean and easy,” Barber says.

The house has a laundry room and a community kitchen with space for families to keep their own food separate from everyone else’s, as well as a stock of shared food. The large dining room is a valuable place of connection between families, Cook says.

Valuable resource

Cancer diagnosis and treatment can be overwhelming for families, Barber says, and that’s why Casa Esperanza offers a patient care navigator to help patients and families understand what’s happening in their treatment. It’s a resource Monica Rodriguez is happy to have. “At first I was confused, but being here helps me understand more,” she says.

Mercedes Rodriguez says he’s most thankful for the house’s closeness to the hospital. On Yale just behind the UNM North Golf Course, it’s close enough that the family could even walk to see Aaliyah.

The house offers a shuttle to and from the hospital for patients and families of patients, which is a relief for many.

The shuttle is a great resource for Bruce Pyeatt, of Carlsbad, who’s in town until January for prostate cancer treatment. He’s been staying at Casa Esperanza on and off for three years.

“It’s a great place because of the price, for one thing,” Pyeatt says.

Staying the night at the house costs $30, a welcome break for people dealing with the crushing costs associated with cancer treatment.

If a family has trouble paying, office staff can direct the family to resources that cover the cost of a room.

“We never turn anyone away,” Barber says.

If the house is fully occupied, staff help families find and pay for a nearby, temporary hotel room.

The house relies in large part on volunteers and donations to keep afloat, Barber says. It does have funding from the state Department of Health. In the fiscal year ended June 30, that funding was about $90,000 out of $744,000 in expenses.

Volunteers are indispensable, Barber says. Whether it’s church or school groups providing dinner in the community dining room or someone to sweep up the playground, they’re all necessary.

Even volunteers with less immediately necessary services to offer are welcome, Barber says. A few weeks ago, a stylist came to the house and gave everyone free haircuts.

And, because it’s the holidays, Cook says program administrators try to make the house “as cheery as we can.” Carolers are welcome.

Many of the services provided by the program also require in-kind donations, especially common items like trash bags, paper towels and toilet paper.

“Whatever it takes for a person to run their own home, it takes us times 28,” Cook says.

Financial donations have fallen sharply this year from last, she says. “Like everybody else in town, we are desperate for money.”

One of the fundraising programs that sustains Casa Esperanza through tough times is the “Give Hope a Ride” vehicle donation program. You can donate a car, motorcycle, truck, boat or RV to the house, which will auction the vehicles off to raise money.

You benefit by receiving a tax credit worth what it sells for. If your vehicle sells for less than $500, you still will receive a credit worth $500.