Remembering the Power of One Little Girl

Over the years, the Desi Geestman Foundation held several events including its popular Pajama Party. Shown here are Sydney Flynn, left, and Emily Haug who helped children during the annual pajama party at City of Hope hosted by the Desi Geestman.
File photo

By Mikaela STONE

Twenty five years ago, a little girl wished to help those around her. Since then, her family members have devoted their lives to granting that wish.

Undergoing inpatient treatment for neuroblastoma, a type of cancer that forms in nerve cells, Desi Geestman’s concerns were not for herself but for those around her. She saw how other children in the children’s cancer ward struggled with the basic necessities often overlooked when one thinks of the battle against cancer – the money for gas, electricity and food, and the ability to have one’s parents come and visit the hospital. Thankfully, the Glendale and La Crescenta communities rallied to provide her family with the money needed for treatment.

Touched, Desi started giving to the other children the gifts community members gave her. She told her mother that when she recovered she would find a way to help children on their journey to cancer recovery. Although Desi ultimately died at the age of 12, her spirit of altruism gave life to the Desi Geestman Foundation, started by her mother with the intention of making her daughter’s dream come true of giving back to the community that had cared so deeply for her.

Mom Ileana Geestman left her job and dedicated the remaining funds the community had raised for her daughter to aid children with cancer, helped by Dr. James Miser, Desi’s doctor and CEO of City of Hope, who had reignited the hospital’s pediatric oncology program in 1995. Though the Desi Geestman Foundation is now shutting its doors after 25 years, Desi’s wish did come true.

The Desi Geestman Foundation filled in the gaps for practical things, such as paying utility expenses, providing parent lodging near the hospital and, should the worst come, funeral expenses. While many cancer foundations focused on research, the day-to-day struggle of those with cancer risk falling through the cracks.

The Foundation also attended to kids who fell outside the jurisdiction of the Make A Wish Foundation, due to either age or other restrictions. The Foundation brought happiness by hosting parties and decorating hospital wings. Unlike other cancer foundations, they upheld the belief that cancer is a family journey.

This is apparent in the Geestman family as Desi’s brother was her bone marrow donor and her sister Vanessa Aristo is now acting as executive director of the nonprofit. The Foundation’s offer of emotional support is likewise unique to the Foundation. The City of Hope would often call in Illeana Geestman to hold patients’ hands while delivering heartbreaking news and she offered a listening ear to other parents who had lost their children. Of Ileana Geestman, Dr. Miser noted that “she won’t take much credit but she deserves a lot.” Geestman, on the other hand, credits her success to her daughter, God and the local community.

As they had when Desi first received her diagnosis, the community offered its support. Desi had been a skilled soccer player and Glendale’s AYSO held the first Soccerfest, a series of friendly team matches, to raise money for her treatment. The Desi Geestman Foundation continued the tradition of fundraising. Other community members pitched in by holding golf tournaments and even a celebrity basketball tournament was held at Hoover High School where teachers played against celebrities such as Brian Thomas Smith of “The Big Bang Theory” and NCIS actor Damon Dayoub.

One of the uses of those funds was the Foundations’ annual parties, the Pediatric Picnic and the Pajama Party. First suggested by pediatric Doctor Sato, the Foundation used the Pediatric Picnic as a chance to let the children they served enjoy being children. They held the picnics at Live Steamers, which allowed children to ride small versions of working steam trains. They always held the picnic on the first weekend in June, National Surivor’s Day, to represent how everyone present was a survivor and to celebrate life. During winter, the Pajama Party gave children a chance to meet Santa and receive gifts brought by firefighters. Every child received a gift, both the patients and their siblings. With fun crafts and welcoming volunteers – many of whom were Crescenta Valley High School students who would go on to join the fight against cancer as doctors and researchers – this party remained an important staple of City of Hope until COVID-19.

Although it is sad the nonprofit is closing, its volunteers agree that it is time. Vanessa Aristo now works full time at a clinic and as a mother to four with husband and fellow volunteer Chris Aristo. Many of their contacts at City of Hope, including Dr. Miser, have retired. Ileana Geestman hopes to use her time to spend with her six grandchildren. The remaining Foundation money will be donated to the City of Hope.

Looking back, the Foundation granted many wishes over the years, including a trip to Ireland one young woman hoped to make before her passing, a chance to meet Jay Leno – who took the child to both his garage full of rare cars and his concert, prom dresses for young students and a first birthday inside the hospital for a baby with cancer. Sometimes their contributions were as simple as recording precious moments with loved ones by hiring a photographer for a family who would soon lose their child. The Foundation supplied a photographer for the wedding of one young man who wished to marry his fiance before he passed. Another child wished to pray in the Basilica in Mexico, so the Foundation paid for plane tickets for him, his parent, and a doctor to keep the child stable.

Ileana Geestman met Paul shortly after his immigration from the Philippines; Dr. Miser had arranged travel visas for the 9-year-old and his mother so the boy might find treatment. Paul soon became a fixture at pajama parties, singing for the other children. While Paul never asked anything of the Foundation, for his 18th birthday his unspoken wish was answered when the Foundation paid for a skiing trip in Big Bear. Although Paul died soon after, Geestman still speaks fondly of him and asks people not to avoid the subject of a child who has died with the child’s parents because “if they don’t get brought up, it’s like they never existed.”

“When you bring them up [the parents] might cry, they might be sad for a minute, but their child is being remembered, that they did exist,” said Geestman. She is still in touch with many of the parents who suffered the loss of their child.

While wishes are what draws the most attention, the Desi Geestman Foundation is unique in also doing the day-to-day work that does not make the news. No other organization took care of practicalities or questioned, as Chris Aristo put it, “how are [the families] paying their light bill?” In filling niches other organizations did not, the Foundation became the unsung hero of many childrens’ lives.

Now that the Foundation is shuttering, Ileana Geestman thanks the community for over 25 years of support and asks that it does not forget the children with cancer. While it is important to give to whichever group one feels the most called to, it is also important not to forget the small foundations filling in the gaps that large nonprofits can miss in the shuffle.

Above all, she is honored to have been Desi’s mom and thinks “if anything, [her] daughter is smiling in heaven.”