Call it the laugh that went around the world. Well, almost, anyway.
As word spread to the friends and relatives of Kapri Geernaert, a Larkfield 5-year-old who was diagnosed with cancer June 3, everybody was looking for a way to help, especially with the rapidly mounting medical bills.
Nobody’s quite sure who started it, but it may have been Mike Graves who saw a recent Internet craze called the ice bucket challenge.
It’s a simple idea: Take a video of yourself getting a bucket of ice water poured over your head and then call out someone else to do it. It’s been getting a lot of play lately, making its way through the world of professional golfers and other celebrities. Earlier this week, NBC Today Show co-host Matt Lauer did the challenge on national TV.
Many have used the challenge to raise money for charities or causes, calling out someone else to pour ice water over their head and donate a small sum of money, or pay a larger amount and skip the ice water. In Kapri’s case, those taking the challenge are asked to pay $10 and call out other people. Those who dodge the icy water pay $100.
When Graves did the challenge, one of the people he called out was Ashley Kahn, a good friend of Kapri’s mother, Rebecca Geernaert. Kahn happened to be heading to Memphis, Tenn., to visit Rebecca and Kapri at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, where the girl was being treated.
The bubbly 5-year-old already had been through surgery at UC San Francisco’s Benioff Children’s Hospital to remove a malignant tumor from her brain, a first course of what is expected to be months of radiation and chemotherapy treatments and was just in the beginning stages of physical therapy to help regain motor movements lost from the surgery.
“She’s a happy kid and, honestly, she’s been taking this whole thing really well,” Rebecca Geernaert said. “But when we would get to the hospital, she would go very quiet. I mean, it’s more than any 5-year-old should have to face.”
But when Kahn decided to take the challenge in the bathroom of the Geernaerts’ apartment near St. Jude’s, Kapri was there to see it and even got to call out a challenge.
But the best part, her mother said, was when Kapri started laughing at the just-soaked Kahn.
“You can hear it on the video,” Geernaert said. “This squeaky, squeally laugh. People just responded to it.”
They responded in a major way.
Geernaert has lost track of how many videos she’s seen but estimates there are more than 500. People have taken the challenge as far away as Jamaica and Costa Rica. A college provost did it in Kansas.
Kahn posted the video to Facebook, offering the challenge to five people.
The Geernaerts, who have two other girls, learned of Kapri’s cancer in early June, when their otherwise healthy girl was showing signs of unusual fatigue. Then on June 3, her mother sensed something was seriously wrong and rushed her to Sutter Medical Center’s emergency room in Santa Rosa. Doctors found a tumor in the back of her brain, and she was flown that day by helicopter to UCSF. After the surgery, the family learned the devastating news — the tumor was malignant.
“I’ve seen a lot in my job,” said Geernaert’s brother Jason Jenkins, a captain in the Santa Rosa Fire Department. “But nothing has hit me this hard, nothing. You just can’t imagine what it’s like to hear your niece has a brain tumor.”
The diagnosis was medulloblastoma, an aggressive, fast-spreading cancer near the brain stem. Treatment often includes surgery to remove the tumor and months, sometimes years, of chemotherapy. Doctors have told the Geernaerts that Kapri, who is nearing the end of her first course of treatment, faces at least another seven months of chemo. While they have health insurance, the family said they don’t know how much will be covered. The helicopter bill from Sutter to UCSF, they said, cost nearly $50,000, and there are other costs, including travel expenses between Santa Rosa and St. Jude’s.
Geernaert said while the family was grateful for the care they received at UCSF, they decided on St. Jude’s for their expertise in medulloblastoma, a decision she said was difficult because it keeps Kapri away from family and friends.
A friend started a fundraising page on Gofundme.com with a goal of $500,000. So far, they have raised more than $110,000 and, the family says, they have the ice bucket challenge to thank.
The night Ashley Kahn posted her video on Facebook, Geernaert went to sleep thankful she was able to share a laugh with her little girl in the midst of what has been a nightmare. She had no idea how widely that giggle would resonate, or how far.
“I got up the next morning and looked at my email and I could not believe how many emails I received. And half of them had videos on them,” she said. “It was crazy. They haven’t stopped since.”
Friends have called out friends who have called out other friends, colleagues, teachers, football coaches, firemen and even a couple took the challenge while on their honeymoon in Jamaica. Members of The Press Democrat’s photography staff did it. Roy Keegan, a Santa Rosa fire captain, recorded the video during a youth football camp where he was coaching. Several people did theirs as part of Fourth of July celebrations.
The challenge has sparked a chain reaction that has reached people who have never met Kapri. Last week, Nancy Cummings, the executive vice president and provost of Kansas Wesleyan University, took the challenge on the university’s campus. Cummings was challenged by Vanessa Puelo, director of the Center for Global Service Learning at KWU, who recorded her video on a research trip in Costa Rica. She was challenged by Nick Beth, a recent KWU graduate who lives in Healdsburg.
It’s been a popular conversation in Healdsburg over the past few days, with friends putting up the videos on Facebook and issuing challenges. Darin Kotalik took his challenge in the middle of the downtown plaza.
“I was challenged by a friend and thought this was a great cause,” said Kotalik, a local businessman who has never met Kapri but heard about her plight from Facebook. “It’s a great community, and I appreciate how people are always willing to help.”
The family, including father Shawn, who owns a custom cabinet company, and sisters, Kenadie, 11, and Kailey, 9, are grateful for the support . While Kapri has a long road ahead of her, she can at least spend her evenings watching the best kind of TV.
“We are just overwhelmed by it all. Never in a million years did I expect this to go viral like it has. I’m shocked. And thankful,” said Rebecca Geernaert . “Kapri can’t wait to see all the new videos that people post. She can’t get enough of them.”
And, says Jenkins, that’s the best medicine.
“Part of doing them is for how they make her feel,” he said. “To get a little girl in that situation to smile is pretty special.”
You can reach Staff Writer Elizabeth M. Cosin at 521-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.