Community

Auburn pulls together in crusade for Cullen

Don Stevenson plans to walk 1,200 miles for his pal, Cullen Steele.  - Mark Klaas/Auburn Reporter
Don Stevenson plans to walk 1,200 miles for his pal, Cullen Steele.
— image credit: Mark Klaas/Auburn Reporter

Strapped to a backpack pump that feeds him medicine through a chest tube every six minutes, Cullen Steele goes wherever his small body will take him.

Despite facing considerable odds in his quest to live a long and healthy life, the fun-loving 10-year-old boy who enjoys history, cooking and playing video games maintains a smile and sunny disposition.

"He finally went swimming for the first time in two years yesterday," said his father, Brian. "He was ecstatic … we couldn't get him out of the pool."

Such simple pleasures in life are often difficult for someone battling the effects of severe idiopathic arterial pulmonary hypertension – an incurable, life-threatening disease which, in many cases, requires a lung transplant to extend life.

Cullen’s future is uncertain, but the present brings hope and possibilities. He is anticipating a possible double-lung and heart transplant because of the disease. His medication, not to mention the 14 pills he takes each day, has greatly improved his quality of life and has temporarily delayed the need for transplants.

His family and doctors remain optimistic that a cure can be found. Until then, supporters are doing their best to support the Kent family, which has deep ties to the Auburn community through their church and volunteer efforts.

A local campaign, through the guidance of the Children’s Organ Transplant Association (COTA), has been established to raise awareness and funds for Cullen and others dealing with this health plight.

COTA was founded in 1986 to help families pay transplant-related expenses. With the cost of a transplant often exceeding $500,000, many transplant patients are unable to shoulder the financial burden of such a procedure.

In Cullen’s crusade, volunteers have begun fundraising efforts to financially support the family. The goal is to raise $75,000 to help cover medical costs for Cullen, a fifth-grader-to-be at Auburn’s Holy Family Catholic Church.

Many people in the community have stepped forward to help, including Don Stevenson, Auburn’s ultra-walker. The 74-year-old Stevenson, the Pacin’ Parson, is preparing to walk 1,200 miles around the state this summer to raise awareness and funds for Cullen and COTA.

“It’s a special walk because of Cullen” Stevenson said. He’s a really good kid,” .

Walking Washington for the Breath of Life officially kicked off with a ceremony Tuesday at the City Hall Plaza.

Walk, concert set

Stevenson plans to cover the perimeter of the state, beginning this month and ending the walk at the Auburn Avenue Theater at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 20, just before the “Buddy Holly” benefit concert, the proceeds of which will benefit Cullen.

Stevenson, a former teacher, pastor, volunteer, firefighter, truck driver and Marine, has logged more than 40,000 miles for charities since 1998.

When Stevenson heard about Cullen’s crisis, he gladly stepped forward.

“It’s the least I could do to help,” he said.

When Cullen was diagnosed two years ago, the news devastated the family.

“We were overwhelmed with the emotional factors … trying to learn about the condition and learn how to take care of him,” said Cullen’s mother, Colleen, a parish secretary for Holy Family. “We were trying to adjust. Our lives were turned upside down. And, also, we didn’t feel comfortable asking for that kind of help.”

But plenty of persistent friends, especially at the parish, convinced the family to find help and accept it. They soon established a fund through COTA’s assistance.

The medical costs are daunting. For instance, when Cullen struggled through a difficult February with medical visits, the family had to pay $2,000 in out-of-pocket expenses.

"It's really been a challenge," said Brian, who works in systems administration for an Eastside-based health care firm.

"The thing that is frustrating about the disease is it's deceiving," Colleen said.

"It's good that Cullen looks so well … but we were not prepared for (the latest, declining heart test results)."

Since his diagnosis, Cullen and his family, including younger brother Aiden, are living each day to the fullest.

Cullen even made it to the White House two years ago. A Make-A-Wish Foundation granted Cullen’s dream in October of 2008 to meet President Bush while he was still in office. He chose the visit over a trip to Disneyland.

“It was cool,” Cullen said. “He (Bush) was very tall.”

Cullen is taking the support he’s receiving in his battle with the disease in stride.

“A lot of people want to help me,” he said. “And that makes me feel better.”

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How you can help

• Contributions: (online) www.cotaforcullens.com; (mail) 2501 W. Cota Drive, Bloomington, Ind., 47403; (e-mail) cota@cota.org. Donations may be made in person at any Wells Fargo Bank branch location using account number 3523561722

• Volunteers: Those who would like to help with fundraising activities for Cullen Steele can contact community coordinator Amy O’Donnell-Riley at 253-333-1755 or arjunyer@yahoo.com.

• Benefit: “Buddy Holly” concert will be held in Cullen’s behalf at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 20 at the Auburn Avenue Theatre, 10 Auburn Ave. For tickets, e-mail arjunyer@yahoo.com.

• Information: www.cota.org, 1-800-366-2682

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