When Richard Nares and his wife Diane lost their only child, Emilio, just shy of his 6th birthday, they were devastated.
After marrying later in life, Emilio had been their joy. During his treatment for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, the San Diego-area couple was saddened watching other families struggle just to make it to the hospital, many of them immigrants and low-income without reliable transportation.
In 2005, to honor their late son, who died on Oct. 15, 2000, they created the Emilio Nares Foundation with a unique and badly needed mission: offering free rides from home to treatment for any sick children in their area.
“We were fortunate we had a big family and a safety net, but many families we were with during his treatment, they did not have the resources,” Richard Nares tells PEOPLE. “Whether a car, money, someone to talk to — these things were so important for us to get through his journey. And then you realize many people lack that. When Emilio passed away we just felt this big moral obligation to help.”
Richard, who left his career as a professional picture framer, began working for the foundation using his own car and money. But with grants and community support from donors, 12 years later the foundation’s “Rides With Emilio” program has six passenger vans and full-time drivers. They provide 4,200 rides to about 220 families each year in San Diego, Imperial, and nearby Orange County, California.
Patient Jessica Blackmon, who lives in San Diego, describes the service as a lifesaver. At 19, she passed out while at work only to be diagnosed with aplastic anemia, which required her to endure rounds of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant.
“I never knew I was sick,” she tells PEOPLE of her shocking diagnosis and difficult treatment, which requires her to visit hospitals weekly.
Trying to use public transportation to get to the hospital was hard, she said, adding that her mother is disabled and she does not own a car.
“When I do catch the bus, people are always coughing, and some are sick, and my immune system is already slow and compromised,” she says. “I use this service as often as I can. I have come to rely on the foundation and drivers to get me to my appointments. They have been very helpful to me and my family.”
Often, Blackmon adds, she uses her time in transport to be supportive to younger children who share her van, encouraging them to be strong.
“A lot of them are scared and they have a lot of questions,” she says. “I just try to lift their spirits up. Mine were down in the beginning, so I try to just listen and let them know that you’re going to get through it.”
Richard Nares says the foundation’s goal is to expand their model to children’s hospitals all over the nation. Many hospitals, he says, already pay for taxi, bus and meal vouchers to help their patients get to them for treatment. And it is costly.
Bus driver Blanca Lopez of Santa Ana, California has been transporting sick kids for the foundation since 2014. Watching them suffer is hard, she says, but it makes her feel good that she is offering not only a ride but also her compassion.
She typically makes six round trips daily for families living in Orange County. Many of them can’t believe the service is free, and often they try to give her 50 cents or a dollar as a meager tip.
“Sometimes there aren’t a lot of people there for poor people, and they are so appreciative,” Lopez observes. “They don’t have money to pay a taxi or call Uber. Most of them are so poor. They live day by day, and this offers a lot of help for the families.”
In addition to driving, she also tries to offer them compassion, knowing that most are navigating a life and death struggle.
“I like to work with kids. And these kinds of families, they need someone to be there for them,” Lopez says. “I think sometimes I might not have exactly the right words to say, but I feel like if they want to talk, I am here.”
Richard Nares says his foundation is supported by the gifts of many individual donors and now employs 11 people. In addition to the transportation, they offer a “Knitting for Hope” program, providing knitting, sewing and crocheting programs to help mothers constructively pass their time while at the hospital.
They also have begun a “Loving Tabs” program where they supply t-shirts for young patients that have convenient and more dignified side snaps so doctors and nurses can easily — and modestly — access chemotherapy ports in their patients’ chests.
Nares said they continue to grow the foundation in their son’s memory, adding that that there are people in his community who are desperate for help. He recalls listening to one single mother talk about her arduous journey with her 2-year-old son who had a brain tumor. She would get up with her child at 4 a.m., to take four or five different bus transfers to get to San Diego to make an 8:30 a.m. cancer treatment appointment. After the boy was there all day, and often feeling sick, they had to make the same long return trip home.
“She could not believe she could get door-to-door transportation in a clean, reliable vehicle,” Nares tells PEOPLE.
“These families we serve, for many, if they miss their job, they lose their job,” he says. “We’ve seen how some had to either give up food or be late on utility bills or rent because they would have to give their neighbors gas money just for a ride to the hospital. We wanted to help them. They are dealing with so much.”
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