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Childhood cancer nonprofit to expand after 45 years of support to families

Linda and Mikell Dale remember their deep sense of fear and disbelief when they were told their 3-year-old daughter had stage 4 cancer.

It was the mid-1970s, and the neuroblastoma that their daughter, Jennifer, was diagnosed with had about a 20 percent survival rate. An oncologist recommended that Linda Dale seek out community support in Las Vegas, both for financial help and to meet with other parents of children with cancer. But no such organization dedicated to childhood cancer existed in Southern Nevada.

Following the oncologist’s advice, the Dales set about creating their own charity, with the help of another family whose child had been recently diagnosed, to support families like theirs.

“I had to talk to moms whose children had survived,” Linda Dale said of why she helped start Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation of Nevada in 1978 as a 27-year-old mother of two.

Jennifer Dale survived the cancer after three years of chemotherapy and still lives in Las Vegas with her family. Candlelighters also survived, and has grown to be one of the most well-known nonprofit groups in Southern Nevada.

What started out as holiday parties in the Dales’ backyard has grown to a nonprofit that reaches the vast majority of children diagnosed with cancer in Southern Nevada, providing emotional support, counseling services and community events for the children and their families.

This month, Candlelighters announced plans for a new building separate from their current space in the southwest valley. Using a $2 million allocation from the most recent legislative session, the foundation plans to create a new building with expanded space for counseling groups designed for the children and teens diagnosed with cancer, along with their siblings.

“It will be a source of comfort for our families and a source of pride for us all,” Candlelighters CEO Kimberly Kindig said when plans were revealed for the new building this month.

After the expansion plans were announced, Jennifer Dale, now 51, told the gathered crowd that children diagnosed with cancer have a much brighter prognosis because of increased community support, research and treatment options.

“My birthday wish for Candlelighters is just to grow this community even stronger,” she said. “And one day, hopefully in the very near future, we won’t have to worry about childhood cancer.”

Because there were no pediatric oncologists in Las Vegas when she was diagnosed, her family made frequent trips to the University of California San Diego Medical Center. The Dales spent two months living out of a modified bus in the hospital’s parking lot to ensure their daughter received the best care.

Linda Dale said she felt like children’s best shot at survival was to get out of Las Vegas to be treated at major university research centers. But helping families access that kind of treatment took money. Volunteers sold coupons for fast-food restaurants, organized fundraiser bowling nights, offered gift-wrapping services for donations at the Meadows mall and walked around UNLV games with a can to collect dollars and coins.

“We would do anything just to raise a dime,” Linda Dale said.

Working with Sunrise Hospital, where most of the children went for local appointments, the Dales also helped organize parties to cheer up the families.

When Linda Dale wanted entertainment for one party, she called the hotel where Donny and Marie Osmond were performing until she got a hold of their manager and convinced the entertainers to make an appearance.

Jennifer Dale still has the photo of her and her brother beaming while sitting between the two performers.

Candlelighters relied heavily on volunteers, many who balanced their own jobs and caretaking for their children. After her daughter started kindergarten, Linda Dale managed work for Candlelighters while cleaning houses and becoming a teacher with the Clark County School District, where her husband already worked in construction, building schools across the valley.

“We didn’t do it alone,” Mikell Dale said.

Forty-five years later, the number of families that Candlelighters helps has grown exponentially, both because of Las Vegas’ population increase and because of the wider treatment options for childhood cancer, Kindig said. Some children will participate in Candlelighters programs for years because of the long-term effects of their diagnosis, and the organization has also began focusing more heavily on support for siblings who want counseling services.

Linda Dale and her husband stepped down from helping run Candlelighters after nearly a decade, but the organization lives on through the hundreds of families it reaches every year in Nevada.

“I think how Mike and Linda channeled that moment of fear and uncertainty into an organization that now has provided comfort and hope to thousands of families locally over the past four decades is nothing short of a miracle,” Kindig said.

Contact Katelyn Newberg at knewberg@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0240.

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