In 2014, Jackie Culley and her family’s life changed forever: Her 17-year-old son, Riley, was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer. For the next year, he received treatments, and eventually, he went into remission. But the Culleys couldn’t breathe a sigh of relief; doctors warned that there was a 70 percent chance the cancer would come back, and that if it did, it would be terminal.
In 2017, the doctor’s warning bore out. Jackie struggled with the news, but found comfort in a new friend, Dani Madsen. The two had met through Dani’s hairstylist and sister-in-law, who felt they could offer each other much-needed comfort and support; Dani was battling cancer of her own. What’s worse, an inoperable brain tumor meant the coming Christmas would likely be Dani’s last.
“I wish I could take my husband and kids on a special holiday getaway,” she told Jackie during a lunch date. “Unfortunately, my doctors said I can’t travel too far.” Jackie responded by offering her family’s South Jordan, Utah cabin to Dani, suggesting she use it as a holiday vacation home. Dani accepted.
Thus began a very special project. Jackie shared the plan with her husband, Paul, and kids, Mallory, Riley, and Levi. “Let’s give them a real celebration,” she said.
Creating a Beautiful Holiday Getaway for Dani
The Culleys decided to go all out for Dani — they called and texted friends and relatives, asking if anyone would like to chip in. At the time, Riley was managing a Nike store, so he got employees to donate gifts and Nike products. The family wrapped the gifts for Dani, her husband, and three kids, and then, they went tree shopping. Two days before Christmas, they filled the cabin with gifts, decorations, and food. Despite his prognosis, Riley declared this his best Christmas ever.
When Dani’s family walked into the cabin, they were awestruck. “I can’t thank you enough,” Dani told Jackie. Sadly, the predictions around Dani’s condition were correct. It was her last Christmas.
Continuing the Tradition
The Culleys decided to host families battling cancer each year. Word spread, and people donated to help keep the tradition going. Every year, the Culleys increased the number of families they hosted. Riley, who defied doctor’s expectations, celebrated two more Christmases this way.
Sadly, on January 5, 2020, Riley died. In his honor, the Culleys continued their tradition. They soon realized, though, that they would need more resources. When they wanted to host the Augustine family — all 11 members, including a 10-year old cancer patient named Eli — they realized their cabin would be too cramped.
An interior designer, Jackie got in touch with contacts in construction, flooring, and appliance sales on Facebook. She made a post asking for help, and dozens volunteered. A local charity, Uplift Mission, donated $50,000 for building materials. The Culleys used the money to renovate their cabin, which was ready in time to host the Augustines.
Inspired by the Culleys, Spencer Bailey, a cancer survivor who owns several Bear Lake properties, joined in on the tradition. He now gives Christmas getaways to additional families, and Jackie has formed Christmas For Cancer Families, an official nonprofit.
The Huge Impact of Christmas For Cancer Families
Christmas For Cancer Families became more than just a holiday getaway. One year, a friend told Jackie about the Miller’s, a family in the middle of a house renovation when their 4-year-old was diagnosed with leukemia. Jackie used another $50,000 from Uplift Mission and a large donation from one of the family’s neighbors to transform the Miller’s home.
So far, Jackie has bestowed the gift of a carefree Christmas to 30 cancer families, and this year, she’s spreading joy to even more. “December is now my favorite time of year,” she says. “It’s also the time I feel closest to Riley and can celebrate his life with the joy of giving.”
This article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.
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