CHAPEL HILL — Cooper Herman has been fighting brain and spinal cancer for more than half of his life. Now 6 years old, he was diagnosed when he was 2.
“This is a roller-coaster ride,” said his father, Justin Herman. “He’s a tough guy.”
The Herman family – Cooper, his parents and his older sister – lives in Chapel Hill. But Cooper has been treated at UNC Hospitals, Duke University Medical Center, and hospitals in New York, Boston and Memphis.
The Herman family could stay with friends while traveling for treatment, but the more common option for patients receiving long-term outpatient therapy is to stay in a hotel or apartment. For families whose children need months of treatment, however, that can become costly. Hotels and apartments also aren’t typically designed for children with weakened immune systems.
In 2009, Herman and his wife, Elise, founded Super Cooper’s Little Red Wagon Foundation to fund housing options for pediatric brain cancer patients and their families. Since 2010, the nonprofit foundation has raised more than $200,000, Herman said.
The foundation recently rented and furnished a “Super ReCOOPERation House” – a two-bedroom, 2 1/2-bathroom townhouse in Southern Village where patients being treated at UNC Hospitals and their families can stay.
“We want to give them a home-away-from-home here and let them get to the hospital quickly,” Herman said.
The first family that used the house had a 6-year-old girl receiving radiation treatment Monday through Friday for brain cancer. They lived about 90 minutes away but lacked reliable transportation, and the girl had to be at the hospital early each morning for school lessons before her treatment. A second family moved in afterward.
In the townhouse, the children’s room has bunk beds, and Herman said the master bedroom has a bed large enough for children who want to sleep close to their parents. A pull-out couch downstairs gives children who can’t physically go upstairs a place to sleep.
“We’re trying to make it as clean and homey as possible,” said Jennifer Thompson, the foundation’s event chairwoman and a friend of the Herman family. She said people donated from a Target registry, from toys to bedding to kitchen supplies.
Priority for staying in the house goes to pediatric brain cancer patients undergoing long-term outpatient treatment. Families that are financially able pay $10 per day to stay in the house, though those who cannot afford to do not have to pay. Herman said the fee helps fund the townhouse and encourages a sense of responsibility for the families. The monthly cost of the house, including rent and utilities, is about $2,500.
“We talked about no fee at all, but we felt it was important,” Herman said. “It’s a minimal fee to help support families in the future.”
The Super Cooper Little Red Wagon Foundation also partnered with the Ronald McDonald House in Durham to fund two suites for patients receiving long-term outpatient therapy. There, a $10-per-day donation is encouraged for short-term visits, and a $15-per-day donation is encouraged for long-term visits, said Oie Osterkamp, the house’s executive director.
“If they pay it, they pay it gladly because they want to give back,” he said.
Osterkamp said he marvels at the Hermans’ work to provide options to patients and families when they are in the middle of Cooper’s treatment.
“It’s just an inspiration how they have been able to summon the strength to help people in a situation they are currently going through,” he said.
The Ronald McDonald House of Durham has 55 bedrooms and suites, 33 of which are designed for long-term patients. The long-term patient rooms include kitchens, washing machines and dryers.
Herman said the Ronald McDonald Houses in Chapel Hill and Durham provided the area with a strong support network. He wanted to take it further.
“We’re just looking to enhance what they provide to the community,” he said.
The foundation’s goal is to raise $750,000 in order to ultimately embark on a stand-alone Super ReCOOPERation House, Thompson said.
An upcoming fundraising event, the fourth annual Rockin’ Run, is “more than a 5K – it’s a full afternoon of an event,” Thompson said. The event, which takes place Saturday, , includes a 5K (3.1 miles) race for walkers and runners, a 1.6-mile bike race for children, live music and an auction. Tickets are $35 for the fundraiser and $40 for the fundraiser plus 5K.
“We want to see over 1,000 people there,” Herman said. “It’s a very family-friendly type of event.”