When their daughter was stricken with malignant brain cancer three years ago, Julie and Todd Ruprecht built a support system.
Kristin Ruprecht died two years ago, but the group that started raising money to help her has gone on to offer aid to other Carroll County families with seriously ill children. Julie Ruprecht is president of the informal organization, called Kristin's Friends; her husband is secretary.
Kristin was a second-grader at Hampstead Elementary School when doctors found she had an inoperable tumor. That was three days before her seventh birthday. She died 13 months later, in December 1997.
"Throughout Kristin's illness, we found there were things we needed that took a lot of time and research to find," said Julie Ruprecht. "Parents don't always know where to look."
Kristin's Friends can help parents focus on caring for their child without the distractions of bills and insurance forms.
"Kristin's Friends are here, and we can help," she said. "There are so many children in our county with cancer, and there are too many needs and not enough stuff."
The Ruprechts are planning a third golf tournament this spring. The past two made close to $40,000, money that has sent critically ill children on dream trips or fulfilled other wishes.
But the help they provide comes in many other forms. The couple will also navigate the maze of insurance requirements or make a home more suited to a disabled child.
"We can't build an addition on the house ourselves, but maybe we can find a way to remodel for a child's needs," she said. "We can't make the child well, but we can make life easier for the family and make the child happier."
Volunteers often work anonymously, and the Ruprechts are reluctant to divulge the names of those they have helped. But they are trying to get the word out about their organization.
"I want to reach people who think this can't ever happen to them," said Ruprecht. "I never in a million years dreamed my child would get cancer."
At times, the offers have been as simple as building an accessible swing set or as complicated as setting up case management with an insurance company.
"Parents don't ask for the ridiculous, but they ask for what they need on a daily basis to keep their child comfortable," she said. "When you have a seriously ill child, there are incredible out-of-pocket expenses. We want to help them pay for whatever is extremely important to them."
Insurance frequently will not cover the costs of custodial care or pay for items parents consider critical, she said. Ruprecht also has knowledge to share. She is well-versed in insurance, medical technology and treatment procedures.
"When Kristin was sick, I read everything, even the medical textbooks, often with a dictionary right next to me," she said. "How could I not pass on what I know? We all have to do things for each other. No matter how bad our story is, there is always somebody who has it worse."
Experience has taught her that people want to help. On Kristin's eighth birthday, her family held a party at the Hampstead Fire Hall. More than 300 attended, many of them schoolmates and teachers from Hampstead Elementary. Three pickup-truck loads of gifts were collected. All went to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, a national charity that fulfills the dreams of ill children.
Dolly Ruprecht, Kristin's grandmother, said: "I saw the way people responded to Kristin, and it was with so much love and support. That child's spirit goes on."
Long before they needed the organization to fulfill a request for their daughter, the couple had volunteered for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
"I remember telling them that I hoped the only time I would ever have to call was to make a donation," said Julie Ruprecht. "It was only a short time later that I was calling for help."
The foundation sent the Ruprechts and their two children to Disney World and to Daytona Beach, Fla., to meet Jeff Gordon, Kristin's favorite race car driver.
The family, including 8-year-old Jacob, returned to the Johns Hopkins Children's Center this month to deliver presents.
"When Kristin was diagnosed, we told everybody," she said. "We sent up balloons that said `Help, help, help.' Maybe people could help, and maybe they would appreciate their own children all the more."