(ABC4) – Three years ago, Darci Miller’s family began a home addition project. The seven-person household funded the renovation themselves, working on improvements when time and money allowed. But in October, the Miller’s ongoing plans were brought to a halt when their four-year-old son, Timmy, was diagnosed with cancer.
Suddenly, most of the family’s resources were going towards Timmy’s treatments, and their home projects fell by the wayside and remained unfinished. They didn’t know how long it would be before they could get their home in order.
Not long, it turns out. In mid-November, just a day after Miller returned home from a 27-day extended stay with her son at Primary Children’s Hospital, a woman she didn’t recognize knocked on her front door. This woman was Jackie Culley, an interior designer and founder of the volunteer organization Christmas for Cancer Families. Culley heard the Miller’s story from her niece, Sarah Sly — who lives in the Miller family’s neighborhood — and knew she had to help.
For every year since 2016, Christmas for Cancer Families has made it their mission to bring holiday joy to families dealing with the effects of cancer. They began by providing gifts and decorations to households, and last year they teamed up with local nonprofit Uplift Mission to do their first-ever home renovation.
This year, the organizations have joined forces again, this time to finish the Miller’s home improvement project. And once neighbors got word of the efforts, they began to show up in droves to help out. The Miller’s school PTA, religious leaders, and even perfect strangers have all lent a hand. Local businesses are following suit, donating supplies and funds, so with a lot of hard work – and a little Christmas magic – the Millers can be home for the holidays.
“They have an incredible community. I have not seen this kind of response before,” Jackie Culley says. “It has been miraculous watching these miracles fall into place, watching these people offer funds and time and people just showing up to do whatever we’ve needed.”
Culley and her family started Christmas for Cancer Families five years ago, after her son Riley received a terminal cancer diagnosis. The idea came to her when she crossed paths with a woman named Dani Madsen. Madsen told Culley she was battling brain cancer and wanted nothing more than to take her family on a holiday vacation, but couldn’t go far due to ongoing treatments.
Madsen’s story struck a chord with Culley, and she offered up her family’s Big Bear Lake vacation home as a holiday getaway for the Madsen family.
“As I drove home that day, I just felt like I was flooded with inspiration,” Culley remembers. “I thought ‘I’m not just going to send her to our house, I’m going to surprise her and have Christmas there, too.'”
The Culleys got to work purchasing and wrapping gifts for the family, decorating the house and the tree, filling the fridge with food, and sending funds to the Madsen’s missionary who was away. Riley Culley, who was a manager at the Jordan Landing Nike store at the time, rallied his colleagues to donate Nike outfits for the whole Madsen family. The Culley’s generous gift became a yearly tradition and remains a way for the family to find brightness during the holidays – even after Riley Culley passed away in January 2020.
“As a mom of a child with cancer, I know exactly what it’s like to feel the burden and the heaviness and the weight of that,” Jackie Culley says. “To honor [Riley], and because Christmas is such a hard time of year for my family, we just put all of our energy and time into making memories and making Christmas a joyful time for other families that are suffering from the effects of cancer.”
Each year, Christmas for Cancer Families helped out more and more homes, accelerating from just one, to two, then three, then four. But what began as bringing Christmas gifts, decorations, and cheer to families affected by cancer turned into full HGTV last year, when Jackie Culley planned to help another local family, the Augustines.
The nine-person Augustine family was living in a small home, and Jackie Culley says when she went to meet them, she was taken aback by how tight and crowded their space was. She knew that the Augustines needed more than just Christmas gifts and cheer.
“As I drove away, I was really overwhelmed and was just thinking: ‘How on earth can I do anything?’ They needed new flooring, new furniture, new paint.”
The next day, she ran into an old friend, who told Culley about her daughter Lexi Walbeck’s new nonprofit. The organization, called Uplift Mission, was created to provide home renovations to those in need. Culley teamed up with Walbeck and her husband, Parker, to give the Augustine’s a complete home makeover.
This year, the renovation project for the Millers has proceeded at an astounding pace. In addition to two $50,000 donations by Uplift Mission and Enium Financial, businesses and suppliers like Pan Homes, Jensen Lumber, FJP Supply Company, RC Willey, and Hearth and Home have donated supplies, appliances, décor, and labor. As of press time, the volunteer list for the project has nearly 50 names.
“We feel so blessed that we have such wonderful neighbors and friends and family,” Darci Miller says. “I look at the volunteer list and just cry, because I see names on there that I recognize from my community. I also see names of people that I don’t even know.”
In most holiday movies, Christmas magic is often presented as a serendipitous side effect of the enchanting season. In real life, however, it takes a tight-knit community, common humanity, and a whole lot of work.
Darci Miller would like to thank Jackie Culley and family, Lexi and Parker Walbeck, Mindy Fidler, Sarah Sly, Melissa Davies, and everyone who has helped in any way with the home.