The Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation, a local nonprofit organization providing financial and emotional support to families of children with cancer, was recently consolidated to include the counties of Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Ventura.

According to the foundation’s website, it provides aid in the areas of financial support, emotional support, holiday support and volunteer support. The direct financial assistance program grants either $2,500 or $5,000 to families, providing them with the necessary financial support to pay medical expenses not covered by insurance as well as related bills for utilities, housing rent or car payments. However, the organization also strives to enrich the lives of member patients by providing emotional assistance through family support groups and “Moments in Time” services that fulfill special requests for birthday parties, end-of-chemotherapy parties and other celebratory gatherings. “Fun Days” consist of events such as barbecues and carnivals, where children who are cancer patients can meet others with similar medical challenges.

Nikki Katz — founder and program director of the organization — said Teddy Bear strives to provide critical assistance, whether financial or emotional, to ensure the families of local children diagnosed with cancer are able put to put enough attention and energy into helping their hospitalized children.

Katz said she first began the foundation 11 years ago after listening to the mother of a 5-year-old boy with Ewing’s sarcoma break down in tears because of stress involved in caring for her son.

The boy was first diagnosed at age three, but went through a relapse two years later and required extensive medical care as well as medication packages that amounted to $1,000 after insurance.

For Katz, the conversation led to an epiphany.

“I felt it from the tips of my toes, the top of my head, my fingers,” Katz said.

That “feeling” eventually translated into Katz’s mission to assist families struggling with cancer diagnosis. Since the organization’s start, it has aided 150 youths — from newborn infants to 18-year-olds, according to Katz.

“I never ever expected it to be as big as it is,” Katz said. “It’s beyond anything I could have ever thought it could be.”

Teddy Bear also offers plenty of support during the holiday season, collaborating with local schools, businesses and donors to provide Christmas gifts and celebrate Thanksgiving, Easter and Valentine’s Day during treatment and volunteer visits.

The TBCF Storytellers program has “storytellers” who read stories to patients in the pediatrics unit of the Santa Barbara Children’s Hospital up to three times a week, where children are also given free puzzles, blankets, stuffed animals and books.

Executive Director Lindsey Guerrero said 95 percent of the children are treated at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital or the Ventura County Medical Center. Guerrero said that although the Ventura County administrative office will be closing this year, care will continue to be provided in Ventura from the Santa Barbara office.

“We are consolidating our offices to reduce our overhead to provide more assistance to families,” Guerrero said.

According to Guerrero, the foundation will also begin providing educational support in the form of tutoring and neuropsychological testing. Guerrero said chemotherapy sometimes changes children’s learning styles, which is something neuropsychological tests can detect.

“Oftentimes when the children are undergoing treatment, they’re spending a lot of time in hospitals and going to and from doctors,” Guerrero said. “So, they’re not able to be in school.”

According to Katz, Teddy Bear has united many families and other members, allowing personal connections to develop and for the lives of every patient and family member to change.

“Some of these parents have become my best friends,” Katz said. “They’ve been to my wedding and baby showers and our kids have had play dates. They’ve become my family. I love them.”

However, the greatest reward of the foundation is its ability to offer an invaluable service to the children and families it helps.

“You can’t change a child’s diagnosis, but if you can make the journey a little easier, then you’re doing something,” Katz said.

A version of this article appeared on page 3 of January 25th, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus.