Pediatric Cancer Fundraiser Encourages Mahoning Valley to ‘Choose Joy’

CANFIELD, Ohio — In August, an event celebrating the legacy of one little girl could be the start of something big in pediatric cancer research.

The Choose Joy for Melina Event began simply as a way for a neighborhood to celebrate the life of Melina Edenfield, a four-year-old girl who succumbed in June 2020 to a type of childhood brain tumor called diffuse midline glioma.

Melina was part of a pack of 11 neighborhood kids who played together daily in their cul-de-sac, explains her mother, Michelle Edenfield. It was common to see the kids running from yard to yard, from swimming pool to swimming pool every day, she says.

“Our neighborhood is very old school,” Edenfield says. “They are in and out all day and they play together constantly.”

Older sisters Klara and Emilea with a portrait of Melina. (Image: Melina Michelle Edenfield Foundation)

But a year ago, the Edenfields received the worst kind of news. Doctors discovered an aggressive tumor in Melina’s brain stem. Equally aggressive treatments of steroids and radiation would only prolong Melina’s prognosis by an estimated six months, but they wouldn’t be six months of quality life, Edenfield says.

Ultimately, 32 days after her diagnosis, Melina would lose her battle with the disease. But, her mother says, she never lost her spirit.

While Melina’s physical condition worsened, her cognition and thought processes were as sharp as ever. When she was unable to swing a baseball bat, she asked to ride her bike, Edenfield says. When she wasn’t able to do that anymore, she had her parents take her into the pool so she could float on an inflatable watermelon raft.

“She was fully aware of what was happening,” Edenfield says. “How a four-year-old processes death, I will never understand. However, she chose to live every day and choose joy.

“That’s what Melina taught us, and that part is just as important to share as is awareness and the fight that we have,” she adds.

To help Melina’s friends cope with her loss, the neighbors organized the first Choose Joy event in their front yards. They organized a lemonade truck to be on-site, passed out popsicles and had a giveaway table full of Melina’s favorite things, which people could purchase for a donation to the newly founded Melina Michelle Edenfield Foundation.

The Joy Team: Melina’s best friends Kaylee Hensdill, Addison and Jack Lopatta, Jackson Gerhardstein, Meila Hofus, sister Klara Edenfield, Karissa Hensdill, Mollie Gerhardstein, sister Emilea Edenfield and Presley Gerhardstein. (Image: Melina Michelle Edenfield Foundation)

Giveaways included bracelets, lip balm holders, hair ties and earrings, all in Melina’s favorite colors: rainbow and cheetah print, or “cheeto,” Edenfield says. The kids, all wearing multi-colored “Team Joy” T-shirts, helped pass out the items.

“In their world, their little friend left and never came back,” Edenfield says. “We tried to do something to help them.”

That first event raised $6,000 for the foundation, she says. What Edenfield didn’t expect is how the community and area businesses would respond.

This year’s Choose Joy event is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Aug. 7, and will move “from the front yards to front and center in the middle of Canfield” on the Village Green, says City Manager Wade Calhoun.

“Anything we can do, we’re all in,” Calhoun says. “It’s humbling to see that level of unification from a community and have people show that we’re all human beings and willing to do what we can to help our neighbors.”

On hand for the donation-based event will be food trucks, ice cream and root beer floats, face painting, bounce houses and photo booths, all supplied by area businesses, including Barber Drive Concessions, Confetti House, PAWS Therapy Team, Sarah Ahmed Face Painting, It’s Your Day Photo Booth and Miss Dana’s Diamonds.

“This event just represents Melina,” Edenfield says. “It’s everything a child would love.”

The foundation will also raffle off 44 baskets to help raise money for the foundation and its efforts to fund pediatric brain tumor research. Some of the basket items donated by area small businesses include a $300 bike, a $700 trampoline and an Oculus virtual reality headset, she says.

“The amount of support is surreal,” she says. “I will spend the rest of my life expressing my gratitude.”

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Gallery images include Melina’s family – Grandparents Ken and Renee Popovec, Aunt Kate Popovec and Uncle Ollie Goss, parents Keith and Michelle Edenfield, Aunt Julianne Linderman and sisters Emilea and Klara – as well as images from last year’s Choose Joy fundraiser. (Images: Melina Michelle Edenfield Foundation)

Local businesses and organizations are pitching in to offer free activities throughout the day, including family fitness classes hosted by Mega Barre Youngstown at noon and 2 p.m.

As mothers themselves, co-owners Erica Fleming and Laura Zavadil say participating in the event helps get their company’s name out in the community while supporting a local foundation that ties in with their core values.

“We just felt that it strengthens our community when we get involved with a smaller, local foundation or family-run foundation,” Zavadil says. “Our values as a business are really focused around the community.”

This is the second fundraising event Mega Barre is participating in for the Melina Michelle Edenfield Foundation, Fleming notes. In May, they hosted the Bike and Bounce for Melina event with Pure Cycle Studios in Canfield, and set a $10,000 goal.

“Which is a lot for a small business,” Fleming says. “We raised well over that, close to $12,000.”

Other businesses contributed monetarily, says Kelsey Klim, co-owner of K Squared Marketing, which promoted the Bike and Bounce event, as well as this year’s Choose Life event.

“I think especially in a post-pandemic world, people are starving for that human connection. Nonprofit events give us that sense of community and allow everyone to build relationships on a much deeper level than some traditional marketing tactics,” Klim says.

Among the sponsors for Bike and Bounce were WRS Wealth Advisors, Jam Sounds & Stagecraft, Aim Transportation Solutions, Posh Studios, YoFresh, Boardman Printing and iSynergy.

“My business is deeply rooted in relationships; therefore, anytime I can participate in a community or nonprofit sponsorship/event, I always make an attempt to contribute,” says Tom Klim, financial adviser with WRS. “It allows me to engage and strengthen my relationships within the community in a very unique and effective way, while also supporting individuals/organizations that need it the most.”

Through the support of local businesses as well as the community, the Melina Michelle Edenfield Foundation has raised more than $300,000 in the last year, Edenfield says, including $32,000 raised during a recent golf outing. The foundation ensures all proceeds go toward funding research to find a cure for childhood cancer.

According to the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation, just 4% of the national budget for cancer research is directed toward childhood cancer. Of that, 1% goes to brain tumor research.

“These tumors are the most deadly of any form of cancer that exists and it gets the least amount of funding,” Edenfield says.

To ensure the funds have a local impact, the foundation made a $150,000 donation to Akron Children’s Hospital.

The Melina Michelle Edenfield Foundation Fund was established to provide financial support for research specific to pediatric brain tumors in the Showers Family Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders, says Luann Maynard, director of development. The Showers Family Center provides hematology/oncology services at the main campus in Akron and the Beeghly Campus in Boardman.

“The purpose of this fund is to support onsite and national/collaborative research specific to cancers of the brain and nervous system (Neuro-Oncology),” Maynard says. “The fund will be used to support such items as equipment, salaries and other related expenses related to brain tumor research.”

Luann Maynard and Dr. Erin Wright (Images: Akron Children’s Hospital)

The fund will also support engagement of hospital members in pediatric neuro-oncology conferences and collaborations to improve the outcomes of all pediatric patients with brain tumors including those in northeastern Ohio, adds Dr. Erin Wright, director of neuro-oncology.

“Over the last few decades outcomes in pediatric cancer have significantly improved and these improvements came through research and innovation,” Wright says. “Brain tumors, however, remain the leading cause of pediatric cancer-related death and, therefore, significant research is need to help learn more about these tumors and improve patient outcomes. The pediatric oncology community often relies on funds such as the Edenfield’s to help support these research endeavors.”

Pediatric cancer is the second leading cause of death in children aged 1 to 14, with some 14,000 diagnoses annually, according to data from the National Cancer Institute and SEER (Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results). Brain tumors are the second more common solid tumor in children, making up 26% of all pediatric cancer diagnoses – more than 4,000 annually.

The Melina Michelle Edenfield Foundation is also a member of the DIPG/DMG Collaborative, a partnership of 17 foundations investing in diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma research to find a cure. As a partner, the Melina Michelle Edenfield Foundation will have an active vote as to how the collaborative’s funds will be spent.

“We are actively doing what I said we would. And that matters to me,” Edenfield says.

As for the future, Edenfield looks to have an even bigger year this year with four quarterly fundraisers and smaller fundraising events along the way, she says. She hopes to expand the foundation beyond the Mahoning Valley, increase its fundraising and awareness efforts, and explore other opportunities to fund projects.

“I believe in my heart that Melina is going to be the cure. I will spend the rest of my life fighting for that,” she says.

For more information about the event and how to donate, visit TheChooseJoyEvent.com.

To learn more about the Melina Michelle Edenfield Foundation or to make a donation, visit MMEFoundationJoy.org.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.