Happy. Spunky. Amazing. These are just a few words used to describe Natalee Garcia, a 9-year-old girl who is living with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Affectionately known as Little Natalee, Garcia was diagnosed in November 2017. This is when Jose "Blue Beard" Lara, one of the administrators of the Dodger fan-based nonprofit Dodger'd Up, reached out to Garcia's family and invited her to be the next honoree of the 4th annual Dodger'd Up Against Cancer Fundraiser.
Established in 2014, the group began as a booster club for the Dodgers and fellow fans, hosting barbecues and softball game meet-ups.
"We are a non-profit organization that gives back to our community," administrator Deziray "Deedee" Garcia, 34, said.
The group plans their donations, events, and outreach for those in need, no matter the cause. "It doesn't matter what type of need there is, children with cancer, women in shelters with their children, the homeless. Whatever our community needs, we're out there to support," Garcia said.
Working for Independent Living Services as a caregiver for her son, Garcia wanted to get involved.
"[I] myself am a caregiver to my son. So when I saw what they were doing things for kids that had cancer, it was an honor for me to be part of this group and put my two cents in to do events like this."
Garcia described Natalee as a happy girl despite the health obstacle she is facing. "Natalee is a bright, young little girl. If you look at her, she has no hair right now, but she has the beautiful, brightest smile on her face," Garcia said.
"She's not gonna let cancer beat her. We are coming as a community to show her love and support. We're here for her," she added.
Natalee's mother Trish Perfecto, 31, said the Dodger'd Up community coming together for their family has been amazing. "Organizations are important. Just to have people that care and are willing to support and be there. That's huge in a battle where you feel alone when you're really not. There's a lot of people out there," Perfecto said.
With a smile on her face, Perfecto described her fourth grader as, "a spunky little sarcastic diva kid. She's always been full of energy. She's always been full of life, even through her hardest times. Look at her now. Her hair is growing back and she's going to be able to start her normal childhood, starting fourth grade."
As one looked at the scene during the fundraiser for Natalee, there were families on lawn chairs waiting for their grilled hot dogs and burgers, excited kids getting their faces painted, and men with big beards in Dodger jerseys and caps.
Jessica Sutton, 35, is a mother who has followed the Dodger'd Up organization on Facebook since their first event. "My first event was one of the first ones they did. It was for little Emily. She was celebrating her birthday. She had beat cancer at the time and they were having birthday parties for kids that had cancer. They had piñatas, games, everything."
Seeing the kids who are fighting cancer still smile has inspired Sutton. "I used to complain about stupid things, like someone getting me in a bad mood, but these little kids are out smiling still and fighting, so what do I have to complain about? That's why it pushes me to keep helping them. I never knew that they didn't have that much support for research on certain cancers," Sutton said.
"They're supposed to be our future and they're leaving before us. It breaks my heart. They still live with a smile, positive," she said.
She added that Dodger'd Up's Facebook group is what has spread the word, effectively. "I met them online through Facebook. So, one person at a time, I've seen them growing. I think they're doing great things. Someone's gotta fight with these kids and there's not a lot of people doing that," Sutton said.
Natalee's grandmother Becky Burciaga, UC Irvine Medical Center analyst for 26 years and teacher of medical assistants, has been by her side since day one, seeing her grow. She shared how difficult it was to know Natalee's diagnosis.
"It was devastating. Six months prior to that, my dad was diagnosed with liver cancer." As tears roll down her cheeks, Burciaga said, "That prepared us in a sense for what was coming down the line. I have my goddaughter who got diagnosed with Leukemia, and no relation, but we saw her grow and the complications she had, so I already knew the complications Natalee was going to face. I knew what my daughter was gonna face."
Burciaga, as a sentimental grandmother would, also reflected on how cancer would affect Natalee, physically.
"The first thing I thought was, 'Her hair's going to be gone. She had beautiful long curls. As time progressed, seeing her go through the chemo, getting her little body shaky, feeling everything. Not knowing what's going on with her own body, it hurt."
Despite watching her granddaughter have to fight for herself, she is in awe of Natalee and the knowledge and compassion that grew through her diagnosis and treatment.
"She wants to be a nurse now," Burciaga said. "That's what she got out of all of this. She wants to help kids like her. She knows her medication time, her medication names, her medical record number." Burciaga added that a child does not know what they're getting into with cancer but Natalee overcame any fear that could have come with the diagnosis.
"She took it on. With a smile on her face, she still accepted it all and did everything that's asked of her. She's got everything lined up in a row."
Starting school this September, Natalee is going to be missed by her grandmother, but she is not worried. "She's ecstatic. I'm gonna miss her but she's real self-efficient. She does everything on her own. She's an outstanding loving little girl," Burciaga said.
"If you get to know her, at first she comes on shy. She speaks her mind. Very intelligent for her age, very advanced… Going through what she's gone through has made her even stronger. She's amazing," she added.
Burciaga also uses "amazing" to describe what Dodger'd Up has done for Natalee and children through their events. The administrators even got Natalee and her family into a recent Dodger game and Natalee got to throw the first pitch.
"That was big," Burciaga said. "They already had the plan to throw this event and they threw the Dodger game in. They are absolutely amazing. They all contribute and do it out of the kindness of their heart. It's overwhelming to me."
Burciaga added that the co-founder of Dodger'd Up, Ruben Borja, is a selfless man. "Ruben is an amazing man. To give his heart and not have any kids himself is amazing," she said.
Borja explained that the group turned into much more than a fan meet and greet when they met little Emily at one of their first events.
"We met a couple of cancer patients at one of our events and decided to go nonprofit and organize fans to come together to help children and their families that are fighting cancer," Borja said.
"Little Emily came down and we fell in love with her. We said, 'This is going to be our passion. This is what we're going to do now.' When Emily got better, we had another event for little Danny, who was also battling cancer. Emily paid it forward to him."
Giving back to kids in need is rewarding for Borja and the group, but at times the reality of cancer takes hold.
"Emily was so happy that day that she got hair. 'I have a ponytail,' she said. I was happy for her but at the same time, I was sad. Then her cancer came back and took her life. I said, 'I'm going to do this and I'm going to continue… A lot of the admins came and left. It's my passion. I can't just do it for a year or two and then stop. It's hard but I'm going to continue doing it," Borja said.
Despite him not having children of his own, Borja said being there for others' children came down from his own family and what they taught him. He said his goal is to see others smile.
"It was instilled in me from my family. My mom and dad taught me that life is very meaningful and you have to appreciate all life. I get teary eyed really fast. Does it have to be a family member, blood? I could see one of these little girls hurting and I'm going to cry. It hits me. I've had a good life. I've had a bad life, but I come from a good family and I just like to see people happy."
According to Borja, adults can learn from these children to better appreciate their own life. "Little Natalee is just so happy. If she can be happy like that, knowing that her life could be taken, that could be something that could inspire all of us. That little kid is showing us happiness. It's very amazing how bright and full of energy she is."
As Borja pointed out Natalee running back and forth across the green grass in the park area where the fundraiser was set up, he said, "Look at how, now. She's just running around hugging people."
Reaching out to others is something that Natalee's mother both hopes she can help with when it comes to parents and guardians with children who have cancer. She encourages parents who have a child diagnosed with cancer to reach out to her on Facebook.
"I want to be able to reach out to other parents going through it and tell them it's going to be okay. I want Natalee to be able to talk to them too because she was scared," she said.
"As a parent to another parent, be strong. Your child is a lot stronger than we can even imagine. They are stronger than us. They get through anything. They are little fighters. Pray. Keep the faith and patience," Perfecto added.
Burciaga, Natalee's grandma, also has a message to caregivers of children.
"Live each moment day by day. Appreciate them for every second. There's a light at the end of the tunnel for most. For other kids, there may not be but you just keep going. Tackle one thing at a time. Every day is a different day and you're blessed with a new day. Tackle it and do the best with it that you can."