Community raises more than $100K for Calif. firefighter-paramedic with cancer
A fundraiser for Vista Firefighter-Paramedic Andy Valenta, 33, who was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, raised more than $80,000 in 3 days
The San Diego Union-Tribune
VISTA, Calif. — After Vista firefighter Andy Valenta was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer on Jan. 8, one of his fellow firemen put out an online call for help.
Within just three days, firefighters, friends and strangers had donated more than $80,000 for the 33-year-old Carlsbad native's family through a GoFundMe.com campaign that became one of the crowdfunding company's fastest-growing San Diego campaigns this year.
Valenta's wife, Caylie, said the donations — which have since grown to $102,000 — have been a great comfort to her family in an otherwise very dark time. Andy faces a hard and uncertain road ahead in his battle against metastatic melanoma and he can no longer work. So, the GoFundMe account will be a lifeline for the Valentas and their two daughters Lily, 4, and Grace, 2.
Caylie said the "brotherhood of firefighters" has a long history of stepping up for their own, even those they've never met. But she has also been surprised by the donations from old friends who Andy hadn't talked to in years, as well as many strangers.
"The outpouring of support is so far beyond what we even imagined," she said. "We're still in shock at how generous people have been and how much they truly care about the situation. A lot of that is about the people that Andy has touched throughout his life. Everyone he meets he's left a lasting impression on."
Jenny Perrillo with GoFundMe described the public's response to the Valenta campaign as "powerful."
"Support like this shows the incredible empathy and desire that people have to help in any way that they can when given the chance to ease financial burden for others, especially when they are going through something as difficult as this," Perrillo said. "It's clear that Andy has done so much to help others and now people want to help him."
The Valentas met 12 years ago at Hennessey's Tavern in Carlsbad. Andy was there to celebrate his new job with the Vista Fire Department. Caylie was there on vacation from her home in Michigan. By the end of the evening, Andy told Caylie he would marry her someday. That day arrived on Feb. 7, 2014.
"It was love at first sight," she said. "We're definitely soulmates. We've always had a very special relationship."
As a firefighter/paramedic, Andy moved around frequently to the various Vista stations over the years, Caylie said, so he got to know everyone in the department and sees his fellow firefighters as extensions of his family. One of them is Patrick McDonald, a Vista fireman who organized the GoFundMe campaign. He said Andy has a boisterous personality who touches everyone he meets with his "infectious smile, positivity and compassion."
Not only have Vista firefighters and their families donated to the cause, they've also been a big help with babysitting, prepared meals and small gifts for Lily and Grace. On Lily's fourth birthday on Jan. 13, fire trucks from around San Diego County lined up for a surprise birthday parade in the Valentas' Temecula neighborhood.
Caylie, who works as as physician assistant, said 2020 was a tough year for her family. Andy started experiencing health problems last March that grew worse as the months passed. In November, he began suffering debilitating headaches that led to six weeks of vomiting day and night. Just after Christmas, he felt enlarged lymph nodes in his armpits. A CT scan found tumors throughout his body. Four days after his diagnosis with metastatic melanoma, he was hospitalized in intensive care with a brain bleed that revealed the cancer had spread to his brain.
"Shock is an understatement. When we got the news, I felt like I had lost him then,"Caylie said. "It's a very terrifying road for what the future looks like. Imagining myself as a 33-year-old widow, the fact I'll be losing my best friend and soulmate, has been a nightmare. We always talked about how we'd be that cute old couple sitting on rocking chairs and now I wonder."
In the weeks since his diagnosis, Andy has undergone two weeks of whole-brain radiation, is discussing possible treatment plans with his doctors and is recuperating at home. He hasn't been able to spend time with friends because he can't risk exposure to COVID-19. Although there have been many advances in the treatment of melanoma, Caylie said she and her husband are prepared for anything but they're still clinging to hope.
"We're hopeful, but we're still racing the clock because this is a very aggressive cancer and there is no cure. The future is very unknown," she said. "But he always has a smile on his face, no matter how he's feeling or how discouraging the results are. He says whatever happens he's glad he lived such an amazing, blessed life."
To contribute to the Valentas' campaign, visit gofundme.com/f/support-for-andy-valenta-and-family.
This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.
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