The Sandstrom (Rocky on the right). Photo by Robert Eliason.
The Sandstrom (Rocky on the right). Photo by Robert Eliason.

Five-year-old Rocky Sandstrom has epilepsy and will soon have brain surgery that might help slow down his seizures and enable him to live a better life. It will be complicated, involving a lengthy recovery period, and very expensive. Luckily, Rocky’s mother, Courtney, has friends who are there to lend a hand, particularly the Hollister chapter of Helping One Woman (HOW), a nonprofit organization that raised over $9,000 in her honor on Aug. 23 at a dinner attended by 162 guests at The Barn in Tres Pinos.

“This is the fourth month we have held a dinner for a woman in need,” said HOW member Cassie Traina. “This event is all about the community coming together to support one woman at a time, one woman who is very overwhelmed with what’s going on in her life.”

HOW members Chelsee Barrett, Kendra Baron, Mashawn Ensz, Cassie Traina. Photo by Robert Eliason.
HOW members Chelsee Barrett, Kendra Baron, Mashawn Ensz, Cassie Traina. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Not expected to survive childbirth due to distress in his heart and kidneys, Rocky was born with a complex series of medical problems, including cerebral palsy and global developmental delays, that started showing themselves before he was a year old. His epilepsy came later.

“It was a surprise to us,” Courtney said. “One day, I knew he wasn’t feeling well. While I was holding him, he just went completely lifeless, stopped moving and started turning blue. I thought my child was dying.”

Rocky was taken to St. Louise Hospital in Gilroy, where he went through a series of tests that established his condition and indicated he would likely have seizures for the rest of his life. The doctors suggested implanting a responsive neurostimulation device in his brain, a procedure rarely performed on children, to track brain waves and patterns to predict oncoming seizures and prevent them.

“I have been in touch with the mother of a three-year-old,” Courtney said, “and she told me his seizures were reduced by 80%, so my husband Dylan and I are very hopeful now. And all of this support really helps.” 

HOW was founded by Fresno residents Charlotte Bavaro and Brenda Critzer in 2008 and has chapters throughout the U.S. It’s based on the idea that a concerted effort to gather small cash gifts for a single person can add up quickly to a meaningful amount, as set forth in their motto:

One woman with $10.00 can buy another woman lunch.

Ten women with $10.00 can buy another woman’s groceries.

One hundred women with $10.00 can make a real difference in another woman’s life.

Mashawn Ensz founded the Hollister chapter earlier this year after seeing it in action while she was living in the Central Valley.

“I love the organization,” she said. “For people in need, it can put gas in somebody’s car or groceries on a table. It might help pay for a motel room. It’s a good cause, and I am hoping we will keep growing. I am also hoping people will nominate people they know who need help.”

The Hollister chapter’s first dinner was held in May and raised over $5,000 for Kailyn Barrett to help her care for her two-month-old son, Liam, who was diagnosed with a heart murmur. Liam spent a month at Stanford Hospital and has since gone through three surgeries, with another expected this year.

“After the second week at the hospital,” Barrett said, “my sister-in-law, Chelsee Barrett, who is on the board, told me that HOW would throw a dinner for us to help raise some money for the medical bills and for whatever we would need while we’re not at home and not working.”

Dinner attendees purchase tickets for $30 and provide a $10.00 cash gift, which is collected at the door. Prior to the dinner, guests can buy raffle tickets for items given by local businesses, including Calera Winery, The Smoke Point BBQ, Calavera Coffee, Home Mama Made and Grazing Girls Gourmet.

The HOW dinner at The Barn. Photo by Robert Eliason.
The HOW dinner at The Barn. Photo by Robert Eliason.

After the dinner, prizes are raffled off, and nominations are taken for the next HOW dinner recipient. Whoever nominates a winning recipient is responsible for helping with the next event by arranging for the prizes that are given away.

Allison Messina and Camille Hartman nominated Courtney at the previous dinner and are hoping the money raised will allow Courtney and Dylan to take some time off for Rocky’s surgery.

“Courtney has such a loving heart,” Allison said. “This is going to be a difficult time for them, but Rocky has been a fighter since birth. He is the most loving little five-year-old boy that I have ever met in my entire life, and he deserves a chance.”

For Courtney, just knowing there is this kind of support in the community is making her family’s burdens just a little easier.

“I feel really loved, and I am grateful to everyone,” she said. “It feels really good to be surrounded by so many people that are here in our corner.”

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