Eight-year-old Evan Barberis discovered a new sanctuary during his battle with leukemia.
His parents, Joe and Pam, often find their shy son in his bedroom reading a book, often about military airplanes. He loves jets. Ever since coming across a series at the Muldown Elementary School library in Whitefish, he has poured through the library’s entire stash. Not just picture books, either. Evan is an excellent reader, even though he missed all of first grade because of chemotherapy.
“He knows more about jets and Mach speeds than I ever will,” Pam said.
Evan has settled into his room these last few months after living in Spokane for a year while he underwent treatment for a rare, high-risk form of leukemia. He still spends one day a month in the hospital in Spokane, and takes oral medication daily. His immune system is still so fragile Evan can become sick easily.
Yet, Evan is winning. The cancer is in remission. After two and a half years, Evan’s parents hope he is on the final stretch of a grueling battle.
His spirits were high and he was back in school full time until recently when he came down with pneumonia. That’s what made the timing of his big surprise even better.
He found out that next week he will be sitting inside an F-18 Hornet from the U.S. Air Force. And this weekend his bedroom will be remodeled according to an airplane lover’s dream, with paintings and pictures everywhere.
“Evan’s a quiet child, but he got really excited and he was kind of dancing around,” his mother said of the night he heard the news.
“He’s been through a lot,” she added. “He’s had a lot of crummy days. He does deserve to have something so special and I think this is just a nice treat to keep him going.”
Evan’s dream came to fruition thanks to two local nonprofit organizations, the Whitefish Winter Classic and Special Spaces Montana.
Both nonprofits have made it their mission to support children with medical conditions like Evan, either through financial support or a redecorated sanctuary.
Support for Evan and others is once again the focus at this year’s Whitefish Winter Classic, a longtime charity event founded by former NFL Pro Bowl defensive end Doug Betters.
This year’s four-day event is March 1-4 and features more than a dozen NFL Players, including several familiar Montana natives and two athletes who played in the recent Super Bowl. The guest list includes Dan Carpenter (Miami Dolphins); Dane Fletcher (New England Patriots); Bear Pasco (N.Y. Giants); Colt Anderson (Philadelphia Eagles); Haloti Ngata (Baltimore Ravens); and Shann Schillinger (Atlanta Falcons).
The Winter Classic hands out roughly $50,000 a year to families like Evan’s, picking up where insurance companies leave off and helping pay for costs associated with medical care outside of the valley.
Board members of the Winter Classic wanted to take it a step further and donate to another charity that also helps kids, according to longtime board member Tonia Paulson.
The Winter Classic reached out to Paula Strickland, who started the local Special Spaces charity in June 2010 after being inspired to help local families using her 20 years of interior design experience. Through Special Spaces, Strickland and her team remodels children’s bedrooms according to their passions. Recently Strickland began searching for someone who could really benefit from the combined support of Special Spaces and the Winter Classic. Evan’s name came up immediately. After talking with Evan’s parents, it was clear what the theme would be. But it didn’t stop there. Word began spreading throughout the two charities and pretty soon someone had gotten in touch with the Air Force. A pilot volunteered to fly a jet to the valley this week so that Evan can see it.
“It’s just amazing,” Pam said. “You just don’t even realize how great it is to be in a community like this until tragedy strikes and everybody pitches in and takes care of you.”
For more information about the Whitefish Winter Classic, visit www.whitefishwinterclassic.org. For more information about Special Spaces Montana, visit www.specialspaces.org.
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