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Larissa Linton

When you walk into Larissa Linton’s conference room, you notice two things. First, Larissa is a hugger. She smiles easily and graciously welcomes you into her space. Second, the walls of the room are lined with pictures of children. Some are shades of brown, some are peaches and cream. A few are infants, and some are teens. Some of them have hair, some don’t. Later one discovers that a few of these children, though their eyes and smiles beam so brightly in the photos, are no longer alive.
One child whose beaming face lines the wall belonged to Larissa. Taylor, Larissa’s first child, was complaining of pain and had a fever. A visit to several doctors confirmed the same diagnosis: an ear infection. But it didn’t get better. Taylor was extremely weak, and her fever spiked. Two weeks before Christmas in 2000, Larissa and her husband rushed Taylor to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). Taylor, who was 3 years old, would be hospitalized for months, enduring aggressive bone-marrow treatment and chemotherapy.
Despite a hard-fought battle, Taylor died of AML in November 2001. “The grieving process is unique,” Larissa says today. “People always ask, ‘How long?’ There is always this hole in your heart and this sense of loss.” Each photo on Larissa’s conference room wall represents a life engaged in a battle with cancer, and a family whom her organization, Heroes for Children, has supported. The walls are both a memorial and a celebration.
Larissa spends her days filling holes in the lives of other families. “Cancer diagnoses are so long, they can last 2-4 years or even longer,” she says. “Initially people want to do all they can to help, but then time goes by and life goes on.” Heroes for Children provides support through speedy financial assistance with bills (“frankly, the utility company doesn’t care if your child has cancer”), special events, life celebrations, funeral assistance, providing laptops for homework and by giving parents space to reconnect with each other.
When her daughter Taylor was diagnosed with AML, Larissa was eight months pregnant and had another 2-year-old daughter. “One week, we were both in the hospital at the same time,” she recalls. “I delivered my daughter Tessa three weeks early.” So while the nation panicked about Y2K, Larissa was consumed not only about the health of her oldest child but also how the bills would be paid, the lawn mowed and her other children cared for. Just shopping for groceries became a logistical and emotional challenge. Larissa, a stay-at-home-mom, had three kids under 3 years old, and her husband had a commission-based job. How would they survive this?
What happened, Larissa says, is that family and friends swooped in with unrelenting support. While Larissa stayed by Taylor’s bedside, friends would baby-sit, drop off food, take shifts at the hospital. A group of friends hosted a charity golf tournament. They kept Larissa’s family afloat, and Taylor returned home in March 2001. The Christmas tree was still up, and the family had something to celebrate.
Taylor’s immune system was fragile, but in August 2001, things were looking up; Taylor was able to return to preschool and see her friends.
That time of freedom was brief. The next month, the cancer returned, and Taylor would have to start aggressive treatment all over again. “It was a lot harder for her this time, not just physically but emotionally,” Larissa says. “She knew she was going to be isolated from her friends.” Taylor died two months later.
The hole was palpable. As Larissa dressed her daughters in Taylor’s hand-me-downs, when she saw Taylor’s expressions on her children’s faces, there lurked a profound sense of loss mingled with the joy of feeling her daughter’s fleeting presence. Larissa sought to keep Taylor’s memory alive by helping others. “We knew we wanted to do something for other families,” she says. “We met lots of families in the hospital whose kids were sitting in the waiting room on the weekends because Mom and Dad didn’t have the means to provide other child care.”
Larissa happened upon a blog written by another mom, Jenny Scott, whose infant daughter went through the same painful battle with AML and lost, and found a kindred spirit. Together, they founded Heroes for Children. In memory of both of their daughters, their logo is two little angels with a heart formed by the space between them.
Every service HfC offers is a result of struggles that Larissa experienced or observed during her time with Taylor and is a way to combat the pitfalls that parents and children face. The laptops are given in memory of Jordan, a teenager whose sullen disposition changed after he borrowed his neighbor’s notebook and reconnected with friends. HfC hosts an annual Valentine’s Day dinner for parents just to enjoy a romantic night out, because caring for a sick child often puts a strain on marriages. Larissa’s first marriage unfortunately became a statistic. She smiles from ear to ear while sharing that a couple who had already separated reluctantly attended one of these dinners and decided to recommit. One more hole smoothed over.
The work is emotional. “We received a letter today with a picture of a little girl who had passed away,” Larissa says. “We helped them financially, but then we also provided funeral assistance. It’s one of those things that I wish we didn’t have to do, but it’s very necessary and it’s a big part of our financial assistance.”
Larissa strives for a balance between work and home, grief and joy. Some of her biggest sources of strength are her husband, Kenny, and her children: Tristan, 13; Tessa, 11; Luke, 6; and Lilly, 4. Though Larissa’s days are filled with helping weary families, she still makes it home in time to pick up the kids from school. She describes one of her daily joys as “Luke and Lilly waking up in the morning and jumping up and hugging me.” She feels blessed to have four healthy, beautiful children. Being a mom is Larissa’s top priority; losing a child has given her perspective on just how brief the time of child rearing can be.
“Most nights, I would go to bed and cry myself to sleep for months, but my girls definitely got me through the grief,” she says. “I can’t imagine not having them, and just looking into their eyes I saw their sister every day. I trust that God has a plan, and while I don’t fully understand it now, I have faith that I’ll see my baby girl again one day. Without that, I couldn’t get through it.”
Her advice to those who grieve: “Look at the blessings that you do have in your life. While there is that huge hole and that sense of loss, there’s more to you than that. How can you take that experience and turn it around and help someone else?”