Exchanging Dollar Bills for Duck Bills

It’s been 13 years since Molly Alspaugh first met the Sipos family. 

Their paths crossed during the construction of the freestanding Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. Rob Sipos was a project engineer for Centex Rodgers, the construction firm tasked with building the pediatric health care facility. Alspaugh, a senior interior designer with ESa is the architectural and design firm responsible for the hospital.

Alspaugh remembers when Sipos’ son, Gabe, was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma in 2002. One Christmas, her firm purchased everything on Gabe’s entire wish list.

“It was amazing,” recalled Lu Sipos. “Some of those toys are still being used by children in our neighborhood. They have been well-loved for sure,” she laughed.

“It didn’t surprise me when Molly decided to help Gabe’s Chemo Duck program recently. It has been very fulfilling to reunite with so many friends who supported our family when Gabe was sick and to know that they continue to support children living with cancer … well it’s hard to even put into words!”

Alspaugh said the ESa’s motto – for the kids – was a consistent theme during the hospital build more than a decade ago. It continues to play a role in the firm’s commitment to community outreach.

The company hosts $5 Fridays as a way to raise money for various charities and recently sponsored a dress-down day to support Chemo Duck.

“When we saw that there was a way for us to help kids out – we were in,” she said. “We raised $500 for Chemo Duck. It was one of the most successful ones ever.”

The personal connection to the family was a definite appeal for donations, she said. The company plans to host another event next year.

The first week of August the Sipos family met with ESa employees at its Nashville offices. The gathering was a great reminder of the impact their work has on families, Alspaugh said.

“There were a lot of our folks who worked with Rob on the Children’s Hospital project and remembered Gabe’s story and the tough journey they traveled.

“It was great to be able to see Gabe – he is such an outgoing young man and truly inspirational and to learn what he is doing to develop Chemo Duck and the role he plays in the program was really neat. The last time we saw him he was just a baby and now he is making a difference in the world.

“It was truly gratifying to see the success of Chemo Duck,” she added.

“It’s wonderful that it is so effective and on such a global scale.”

Sipos said the fundraiser held by ESa will provide Chemo Ducks to 16 patients.

Sarah’s Six Funds a Flock

Sarah Bonnell, at age 7, and Gabe Sipos, then age 1, had chemotherapy in the same clinic at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital every week for nearly a year. The two small children bonded, as they shared the same rare cancer, rhabdomyosarcoma.

“We knew the original Chemo Duck,” says Sarah’s mom, Diane.

Now 18, Sarah graduated from high school last month in the top ten in her class. She remembers those difficult days in the hospital with clarity. “I thought Gabe’s duck was amazing,” she says. Though her own stuffed toy, a special bear, comforted her during treatments, “I admired Gabe’s duck’s little port and his blood pressure cuffs,” she recalls. “I kind of understood what was happening in the hospital, but Gabe was so young, he had no comprehension about it all. His special duck helped make it seem less threatening, less scary.” 

Sarah and her family wanted to share that comfort with other kids going through a similar experience. Together with Lu Sipos, creator of Gabe’s Chemo Duck program™, they created “Sarah’s Six.” Each month, the family funds six Chemo Ducks for delivery to children at three U.S. hospitals.

“We’ve always been inspired and humbled by Lu’s work,” says Diane. “We’ve watched in awe as she’s built and devoted her life to her foundation, and though we’ve made contributions from time to time, we decided we wanted to make a commitment to do more directed giving.

“It’s a way for us to pay forward everything that was done for Sarah and the people that impacted our lives along the way,” she says. “It’s not a lot—it’s a small contribution, but we’re so honored to be a part of this organization.”

Sarah chose Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital to receive the first round of Sarah’s Six Chemo Ducks, in honor of the life-saving care she received there. Thereafter, a monthly contest sponsored by Gabe’s My Heart will invite supporters and fans to designate three hospitals to receive Sarah’s Six each month (plus all other single duck orders place that month).

“We believe God took a small piece of heaven and sat it down in the place where Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital stands,” says Diane. “When Gabe and his family and Sarah and our family were all there together, it was one small area on the fifth floor of the old children’s section. They took such good care of us. I could give you a story about each one of the doctors, nurses and staff.” Even when Sarah relapsed, she says, “they were always in our corner. Ten years later, they still are.”

“First Gabe and I had chemo together, and now to be able to team up with his organization and try to make a difference for kids, it’s amazing,” says Sarah. “It’s an honor.”

She’s grateful to be a part of helping kids better understand and gain some comfort during their treatment. “The Chemo Ducks help make cancer treatments a better experience,” she notes. “It’s awful either way, but Chemo Duck helps make it more kid-friendly, helps take a little bit of the edge off.”

“Being there from the beginning, seeing Gabe’s duck program grow and expand to 150 hospitals is awesome,” she says. “We’re honored to team with this really successful organization that reaches multiple kids.”

You can create your own personalized form of directed giving like the Bonnell family did with Sarah’s Six. To learn more, please email us at info@chemoduck.org.