When I first met Emily Ratliff, she looked familiar – we actually both commented on how familiar we looked to each other and laughed at the small-town-ness of our city. I’m sure somewhere along the line we’ve run into each other at the mall, a grocery store, a park, or at a stoplight (we Charlotte moms are never really strangers to each other, right? We rival Kevin Bacon and his six degrees any day of the week), but it wasn’t until a mutual friend and Kindermourn connected us that I had the honor to actually meet her.
Emily lost her precious daughter, Claire, to neuroblastoma when Claire was just over two years old. Since then, she and her husband, Kevin, have started an amazing organization called Claire’s Army. I’ll let Emily tell you a little more about what they’re doing and how you can get involved, but know this: Emily, her family, and Claire’s Army are one of the reasons Charlotte is the BEST city in all the land.
And, it’s women like Emily who make up the backbone of our awesome city – the backbone of us – and who we should be supporting unconditionally because she. is. us. Emily’s family could be ours. She’s the woman behind you in the checkout line, she’s the driver of the SUV beside you at the stoplight, she’s the mom schlepping her kids in and out of Target on a Tuesday morning. And, Claire could be any one of our kids.
Emily is familiar to me because’s she a Charlotte mom. But, here’s the thing: she’s a Charlotte mom doing extraordinary things – all in honor of her extraordinary Claire.
Read on to learn more about Emily, Claire, and Claire’s Army. I hope you feel moved to join in on the army. And, I hope it also moves you to join in on The 13th Annual Kindermourn Hope Floats Duck Race coming up Saturday, April 30 from 2 pm – 5 pm at the U.S. National Whitewater Center. If you haven’t been touched by Kindermourn yet, I guarantee you or someone you know has (remember that Charlotte small town thing?). Adopt a duck here or just come out and join in on the fun. It’s one of our favorite family events that benefits one of the best organizations in town.
Smarties, enjoy getting to know this week’s Smarty Mom, Emily Ratliff! And a HUGE thank you to Emily for sharing her sweet family with us.
Married to: Kevin
Children: Claire (our angel in heaven who is now 7), Sydney (3) and Walker (8 months)
Hometown: Technically I was born in Minneapolis – but have lived here since I was 2
Years in Charlotte: I moved to Colorado after college, so technically, I’ve been back here for 14
Occupation: Executive Director of Claire’s Army
Alma Mater: UNC Chapel Hill
Your beautiful Claire passed away when she was a little over two years old of neuroblastoma. Tell us about her and her life.
Where do I begin? When I look back, it really seems like she was with us for more than 2 years and 4 months. Claire had a big personality in a little body. She exuded love and life. Whether she was at daycare, shopping with me at the store, or roaming the halls at the hospital, people were drawn to her. From as early as I can remember, she was always worried about others and if they were ok. To say she had empathy is a huge understatement–she could tell if someone close to her was sad, hurting, scared, or needing love. She knew no boundaries when it came to her all-inclusive spirit.
When Claire was diagnosed and treated, you had an amazing support system. Tell us more about it and how you think it impacted your family.
Within hours of rushing Claire to the hospital (to learn why she was sick) childhood friends, family, and co-workers were at our bedside and outside of our room. We received unconditional and overwhelming love and support every single day. We felt this through prayers, notes, emails, phone calls, CaringBridge messages, visits, and kind gestures. Friends and even strangers brought meals to our hospital room and to our home 3 nights a week for almost a full year. My YMCA family (co-workers and members) constructed a gift card tree which contained over $1000 in grocery, gasoline, and restaurant gift cards to offset our monthly expenses. Kevin’s employer and fellow colleagues committed to additional travel and responsibilities to allow him to spend 100% of his time with Claire. These are just a FEW of the examples of how others helped us navigate our tough journey. This support allowed us to maximize our time with Claire. We had no idea that we would never even complete her treatment or that she would go to heaven at such a young age. But knowing that we spent as many waking moments as possible with her gives Kevin and I great peace.
How did Kindermourn play a role in your journey?
Our pediatrician, in addition to many others encouraged me and Kevin to contact KinderMourn and seek help. We may have been a little over-eager, but we went to our first group therapy session within one month of Claire going to heaven. I’ve always been a strong advocate of counseling and the way we saw it – we were in so much pain and had encountered the worst thing imaginable in life – so how could it NOT help?
Between our weekly group sessions and individual counseling Kevin and I BEGAN the healing process. The team and clients of KM are the ONLY ones who can begin to understand a parent’s pain and grief. Our time there allowed us to feel a little bit normal in a world that no longer made sense to us. It was a safe place to talk about Claire and grieve openly and honestly with others. The care team at KM played a huge role in stabilizing our marriage as well. Parents who aren’t grieving the loss of their child are often on different wavelengths, so you can imagine how Kevin and I were coping in completely different ways. Although I always knew my time at KM would bring many tears, raw anger, and deep sadness – I always left with just a tiny shred of hope. I knew I could survive just one more day. After losing a child, there’s a whole new meaning to the cliche “one day at a time.” It’s more like one breath, one second, one hour, etc. at a time. Kevin and I continue to see our counselors at KM and have participated in various panel discussions to share our experience in hopes that it will help someone else. We can both say that Kevin and I would probably be in a much different and probably darker place if it hadn’t been for this amazing organization.
One of Kevin’s sessions at KinderMourn was actually the springboard for us to launch Claire’s Army. He heard another dad speak one night about his child being diagnosed with cancer after just moving to Charlotte for a new job. His family had no network, no extended family, and brand new jobs who may or may not provide the same level of support that we received. At this point, we felt a stirring in our hearts to act. We needed to give to others the same way that so many had given to us.
Claire’s Army seems to be your passion. What is your mission and what is this “army” doing to help other families in our community?
Claire’s Army strives to act as God’s hands and feet by providing support for families fighting childhood cancer. Through an established network of resources we support the family’s daily responsibilities allowing them to put their focus on their child. We have three core ways we help these families in Charlotte: Claire Packages; Meal program; and Emergent Assistance. Upon diagnosis, each family at Hemby Children’s Hospital receives a Claire Package – a utility tote filled with useful items to make the hospital stay more comfortable (bath mat, plastic utensils, toothpaste, body wash, a journal, etc.). With the generous support of local restaurants and amazing volunteers, we deliver made-to-order meals to every pediatric oncology family staying at Hemby Children’s Hospital – four nights per week. This not only offsets a financial burden for parents but removes another to-do from the long list and fosters family time. We pay bills on behalf of families who are suffering financially due to rigorous treatment schedules. These include, but are not limited to, mortgage/rent payments, utilities, travel needs, and car insurance. In many cases, one or both parents must stop working to care for their sick child and we hope to eliminate as much stress as possible for these families.
What do you need from us? How can we help? How can we get involved?
Help us spread the word – we need a strong and passionate number of army members to sustain and expand the wonderful work we have started. Every dollar counts and makes a direct impact on a family here in the Charlotte area. Encourage donations, volunteerism, attendance at our events. Visit our website (clairesarmy.org), like us on Facebook. We believe that everyone has some type of gift to offer that could change another person’s life.
What’s one thing you’d tell a mother whose child was just diagnosed with cancer?
One thing…that’s hard. Don’t get ahead of yourself and think too far ahead – focus on each day (how your child is feeling, acting, what is happening clinically, what your medical team is saying). It’s ok to look ahead but the journey can change all of a sudden and that can be very challenging if you’ve attempted to plan out what your life will look like for the next 12-18 months during treatment.
What advice would you give to that mom’s best friend on how she can be supportive?
Just do something! If you think a gesture would help you personally (providing a meal, buying groceries, walking the dog) then do this for your friend. Do not EXPECT a thank you note or public praise. Do everything in unconditional love with no expectation for anything in return. It’s hard to enough to ask/receive help from others for many moms, so the last thing she needs to feel is any type of guilt.
What is your vision for Claire’s Army? Where do you see it going in the next five or ten years?
Our vision is for every family in Charlotte who is currently facing a pediatric cancer diagnosis to feel an army of support behind them. No one should have to walk this path alone. We hope to expand our Claire Package program to Levine Children’s Hospital in the coming year. We want to grow our meal program so that families receive meals every night of the week in the hospital. We want every family to have peace of mind that their water or power will not be cut off for lack of ability to pay. It is vital to us that we maintain the high quality of service and delivery to our families, therefore we will grow at the speed that allows us to maintain this. Our network has expanded beyond Charlotte, NC and so many have asked how they can start an “army” in another city. We think it would be pretty cool to have the ability to distribute Claire Packages to every newly diagnosed family in the USA in the next 10 years. To think Claire could continue touching lives by providing comfort and convenience to a complete stranger in crisis brings a smile to our face.
Switching gears for some fun Smarty questions to get to know you better…
Best place to take toddlers on a rainy day? Harris YMCA indoor pool – it’s so refreshing especially in the winter. Our kids love the water and getting out their “energies”.
Best park in town? William Davie Park in South Charlotte
Favorite baby gear? Noise machine
Favorite toddler gear? Our BOB jogging strollers – single and double.
Favorite kid’s class/activity in town? Little Otters Swim School
Funniest thing your kids have said? I could probably come up with one every day…but Sydney recently asked me why I had lines on my face and where they came from. 🙂
Family’s favorite dinner? Anything from Paco’s Tacos
Favorite weekend getaway? Beach – it’s one of the few places I can truly relax. Claire loved it and the only vacations we took together were there. So whether I’m watching a sunset or have my toes in the sand, I feel like she’s all around me.
Last book read? Redemption Road by John Hart
Favorite way to stay in shape? Running
Favorite memory of Claire? How do I choose-my favorite ones were usually sweet every day moments that showed her personality. During our hospital stays, Claire always slept in a crib just like she did at home. She also spent a lot of time playing in the hospital crib because it was her place of comfort. Every time Kevin or I picked her up from the crib she would always tell us right in our ear “I’ve got you!” She always thought she was the one holding us when we were holding her. Little did we know that she really WAS the one keeping us strong and positive.
Finish this sentence…When Claire looks down from heaven at our family, I hope she…sees me sharing her love with others. I want everyone to know what unconditional love feels like. Our counselors and oncologists have told us that she handled everything with such grace and strength because Kevin and I made her feel safe and secure every moment of every day. I want her to see that other families like ours is receiving the support and therefore quality time with their child. Although I don’t know if it’s possible, I want her to see me smile again – the way I did when she was in my arms.