Christmas has come and gone, but Nathan Duarte just received a very special gift that was worth a little extra wait.
On Jan. 11, the finishing touches were put on the brand-new, custom-built tree house that is now a permanent fixture outside the 8-year-old”s family home in Willow Glen. Attached to the large avocado tree that sits in the front yard, the tree house has a door, two windows, a professional-grade roof and a working light inside.
Like any boy his age might have reacted to a present like this one, Nathan was grinning from ear to ear as he surveyed his freshly painted, above-ground hideaway. But Nathan is hardly an ordinary little boy: Nearly two years ago, he was faced with some incredibly tough news.
“In March of 2013 he was diagnosed” with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, said Nathan”s mom, Jessica Attard.
Nathan has completed the majority of his most difficult treatments and may be entering remission within the next year, but when he first began treatment for his disease, he was very weak and couldn”t go far at all. Attard said that they came up with the idea of a tree house so he could play without leaving home.
“When this first started, he was too sick to go anywhere,” Attard said. “Now this is his getaway, and it makes him feel so special.”
Nathan wasn”t the only one whose face lit up at the sight of the finished tree house. His smile might have been the brightest one on that chilly day, but several other beaming faces surrounding him belonged to the local heroes who made Nathan”s dream a reality.
Everything about the tree house, from design to construction to completion, was made possible by the members of Coaches Against Cancer. Founded five years ago by Almaden resident and Los Gatos High School football coach Mark Krail, Coaches Against Cancer is a nonprofit aiming to make a difference in the lives of those facing cancer.
The organization grew out of Krail”s personal desire to make something good come out of one of the toughest times in his life. In January 2006, Krail lost his father to cancer.
“When you lose a loved one, it”s obviously never a happy time. As a family you grieve and mourn. And I was very close to him. He was the most influential person in my life,” Krail said. “But once that”s worked its way through–although it”s not that you”re ever done–you do get to a point where you say, ”How can I turn this into a positive thing?” That”s what led me to start something.”
With nearly 30 years in teaching and coaching, Krail said he turned to the many connections he”s made over the years to help put his ideas into action. In 2009, Coaches Against Cancer was created and held its first fundraising event.
It was huge success.
“It was always an idea of mine to have a golf tournament and raise money for charity,” Krail said. “Our goal was to raise $10,000, and we made $12,000. It”s just evolved since then.”
“The first tournament was just a word of mouth thing with no corporate sponsors or anything, and we had maybe 100 golfers,” he added. “Now we”re a certified 501C3 and we had 200 golfers last year.”
The funds raised have multiplied every year as well. Since its inception, the annual Coaches Against Cancer golf tournament has raised more than $100,000, with all the money going to the American Cancer Society and the National Brain Tumor Society.
Although they are all pleased with the numbers, Krail said he and the other Coaches Against Cancer board members–Jeff Steinberg, Nico Flores, Gary Ricco, Dave Stanton, John Franza, Joe Berticevich, Jim Marino and Kevin Krail–realized they needed to do something more.
“Our planning meeting in the spring of 2014 turned into more of a philosophical meeting,” Krail said. “We were asking ourselves, ”Where do we want to go with this?” “
What they came up with is not a new idea has allowed them to make more personal connections to the lives of cancer patients.
“We decided to copy the Make A Wish concept but on a very local level,” Krail said, “and we decided to call it our Dream Come True program.”
The tree house they built for Nathan was the last Dream Come True granted for 2014. One of the first wishes they made possible was for Zachary Schroeder, an avid golfer fighting prostate cancer.
“We sent him to Pebble Beach for a round of golf and lunch,” Krail said.
Another Dream Come True recipient, Myron Zaccheo, is a close friend to many of the Coaches Against Cancer members and supporters. Zaccheo was a coach himself, serving as the head football coach at San Jose High and Gunderson before settling in at Pioneer to finish his career. The highly respected Zaccheo is regarded as one of the top football coaches in Santa Clara Valley history.
“He was a coach and a mentor to me and has been battling pancreatic cancer for over four years, and he”s a big 49er fan,” Krail said. “So we had a reunion of a bunch of us former coaches and players, and we treated him and his family to a 49er game at Levi Stadium.”
To find these families, Coaches Against Cancer relied on their connections in the community. They also used a registration form on their website where people could nominate a family in need.
The Dream Come True program has not only brought Coaches Against Cancer closer to its cause, but it”s brought more helping hands in to join the team. Justin Jones, a business owner and general contractor, was introduced to the group just last year when he accompanied a friend to the Coaches Against Cancer golf tournament.
“I met Mark at the golf tournament and it went from there,” Jones said of getting involved with Krail”s crew. “I think my buddy, knowing I was in the construction industry, thought I”d be a good fit to help Mark out trying to get the tree house coordinated and building it.”
Jones was more than just a good fit for the job. Between arranging for design help from a close friend and architect, soliciting hardware stores for no-cost or discounted materials and making several trips to San Jose”s planning department to maintain accordance with building codes, Jones was involved in every step of the tree house process.
Krail is more than grateful for the support he has found in friends, old and new.
“There was a time when it first got going that I was doing everything, but here are these guys who are so gung ho about it and now I”m able to delegate,” Krail said. “The tree house for example: Justin was just a guy who played in the tournament last year; I didn”t know him at all. But he came up to me and said, ”I want to do this.” I have to stand back and say, ”This is pretty cool.” For people to get involved and believe in what you”re doing, it”s just really cool stuff.”
Jones said joining Coaches Against Cancer in their mission has been incredibly rewarding.
“I think having my own son who is 2 years old and seeing Nathan, who is 8, and being able to help him and give back to a kid whose wish is just a tree house when he”s fighting and battling his disease, it just makes me feel good that I can help out in this small way,” Jones said.
Coaches Against Cancer was able to grant every wish submitted to the Dream Come True program so far, and Krail said it made 2014 a truly special year.
“There”s the old saying that people who do things for others get more out of it than the people they”re doing it for,” Krail said. “In my position, I”m fulfilled in a lot of different ways. I love kids and coaching and winning, but this is much deeper than that. There is nothing more fulfilling that seeing Nathan smiling ear to ear about his new tree house or seeing pictures of a gentleman on a golf course that he wouldn”t have otherwise been able to go to.”
He added that Coaches Against Cancer is looking to grow the Dream Come True program even bigger this year with both more submissions for families in need and more supporters looking to join the team.
“Hopefully, we can find more people to contribute and, hopefully, more submissions for people to be considered,” Krail said. “From the perspective of our group, our motto is ”Make a Difference.” When we feel like we”ve done that, it”s super satisfying and motivating.
“Doing something for someone–people who in some circumstances are in a struggle for their life–there”s a really good feeling that goes along with that … a feeling that”s hard to find anywhere else.”
The 2015 Coaches Against Cancer golf tournament will be held on June 15 at Cinnabar Hills Golf Course, 23600 McKean Road in San Jose. For more information about the golf tournament and Dream Come True program, or to make a donation, visit coaches-against-cancer.com or send an email to Mark Krail at email@example.com.