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TendHER Heart luncheon a bonding experience
February 8th, 2013

When Katie Van Gheem attended the Cornerstone Foundation’s TendHER Heart luncheon in 2011, the mother of two from Gilberts, Ill., got much more out of the event than just a nice meal.

A year earlier, Katie’s four-year-old daughter, Ella, had been diagnosed with leukemia. Attending the luncheon, which is held annually to honor more than 150 moms of critically and chronically ill children for the sacrifices they make, gave Katie a rare chance to bond with other women who were enduring the same type of nightmare.

“I can tell you that for the first time you really don’t feel alone because a big part of this journey at least for me when it first happened was that I was searching for other moms and other people that had been through something similar with a child and I struggled to find that,” Katie said.

“You’re pretty segregated in the hospital, at least the way ours is set up, because you’re trying to keep the kids away from each other so they don’t get sick, and because of the patient privacy policies it’s not really an opportune time to bond with other parents.

“So this actually gave us a venue where we could not only share our stories but know that the people around you are going through the same thing and actually spend time talking to them. It was really a time for me at least to feel like, ‘Hey, I’m not alone in this. There are other people that are in similar situations and they’re making it through.’”

At last year’s TendHER Heart luncheon, Katie addressed those in attendance, sharing Ella’s story and offering support and encouragement. According to a blog entry she wrote, Katie advised the other moms to “not be perfect; be mad, happy, sad and cry when you need to; ask for help; know who your friends are; find your faith; and tell your family you love them and appreciate them.”

Katie delivered her speech alongside Bears All-Pro cornerback Charles Tillman, who created the Cornerstone Foundation in 2005 originally to provide children with educational opportunities and resources to excel in the classroom.

After Tillman’s three-month-old daughter, Tiana, was diagnosed with a rare heart disorder and received a life-saving heart transplant in 2008, the mission of the foundation was changed to improving the lives of critically and chronically ill children.

“The awesome part of it is that you can see how much this is from Charles’ heart,” Katie said. “I kind of had an expectation before I knew him of, ‘OK, well, lots of celebrities do charity work.’ But you can tell that he is committed and it’s from his heart, when he’s in tears crying over not just his own daughter but other children that he’s got to know through the foundation. To know that his heart is really in it has made a huge difference to me.”

Nothing made a bigger difference to Katie and her family than the great news they received this past November; after 794 straight days of chemotherapy in and out of Ronald McDonald’s Children’s Hospital of Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Ella was declared cancer free.

Katie prays that her daughter will remain healthy and will never forget the support and inspiration her family received from Tillman and his wife Jackie. Katie recalls when Tillman gave Ella a “Build-a-Bear” during a hospital Christmas party in 2011, not realizing that the little girl received a new Build-a-Bear every time she went underwent treatment.

“We are not a football family,” Katie said. “We don’t follow sports. But after Ella got to meet Mr. Tillman, she has made us watch football every weekend. Her aunt bought her a custom No. 33 Bears jersey as a Christmas present and it’s her favorite thing to wear. She has become a huge fan just because she got to meet him, and the fact that he handed out a Build-a-Bear, that forever endears him to her heart because that was such a big part of her journey.”


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Charles Tillman Cornerstone Foundation
736 N. Western Ave #322
Lake Forest, IL 60045
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