Chuck Young strides into the North Idaho Cancer Center in black cowboy boots. An oversized belt buckle shines at his waist. When he tells his doctor what he sees in the images of his lung tumor, you’d think he was the one in charge.
And that’s just it. For much of his 71 years, Young has been in charge. He retired after 23 years with a California sheriff’s department as a highly decorated sergeant, commanding dozens of deputies.
But cancer is one thing Young cannot control.
This summer he finds out whether the tumor in his lung is growing. If it is, the Coeur d’Alene man will have some difficult decisions to make. Young has had two rounds of chemotherapy and one of radiation, and the tumor has shrunk since his initial diagnosis about two years ago.
But it’s still there.
The treatments racked up slightly more than $41,000 in bills, with Medicare and his secondary insurance picking up about 70 percent. He and his wife, Shirley, 68, are chipping away, $200 per month, on the remaining $12,000 hospital bill.
They could manage on their $3,000 monthly income, but they’re also raising their four Canadian great-grandchildren, ages 5 to 9. Chuck Young says thousands more in medical bills could bankrupt his family, and he doesn’t want to leave his wife alone, deeply in debt and providing for four children. If he learns in July that the tumor is growing, he said he won’t be able to afford more treatment.
“I can’t afford to live, and I can’t afford to die,” he said. “My medical bills are really killing this family. We’re drowning because of it. I’m the one that’s killing us. I’d rather it be me than them.”
It’s a tragic scenario for the Youngs at a time when their great-grandchildren are responding so positively to a stable, loving home. The Canadian government removed the children from their mother’s home three years ago, claiming neglect and abandonment. They spent two years in foster care while the Youngs fought for them in court – Chuck acting as their attorney, his head bald from chemotherapy. They finally won in May 2008, and the children moved to the United States.
Making a difference
On a recent school night, 8-year-old Destiny Godin sat at the kitchen table laboring over her subtraction homework.
“Done!” she announced triumphantly and brought the worksheet to her great-grandfather for inspection. But the second-grader had confused addition with subtraction. And some of the numbers were wrong even if she’d been adding.
“How do you have three, take away two, and get six?” Chuck Young asked. “You’re going to have to do some erasing.”
When Destiny and her siblings – Macaylee, 5, Brayden, 6, and Keira, 9 – first arrived, Shirley Young said, they were angry and regularly hit each other. As soon as one left the time-out chair in the corner, another took over. Brayden required Title I assistance in his first-grade class at Borah Elementary School because he was behind in reading. Destiny’s teacher told the Youngs she was frequently defiant.
The Youngs went to work on the recommendations sent home by the teachers. They read with the children for 20 minutes every night and work with them on vocabulary, math and writing.
They stress the importance of manners – being respectful to elders, saying please and thank you, and not throwing tantrums to get their way. When the children come home in bad moods, they are asked to spend time alone in their rooms until ready to be with the family.
The Youngs have created a routine the children can count on, and include plenty of kisses and hugs.
It appears to have paid off.
Now the Youngs are regularly complimented on the children’s behavior. They sit quietly in the pews of Church of the Nazarene on Sunday. They ask to be excused from the table. They are active and involved in their classrooms.
“He raises his hand all the time now,” said Brayden’s teacher, Kaye Bartlett. “He’s not shy about giving answers. He’s more willing to try.”
In the morning, the class has circle time, in which the children share experiences from their lives, Bartlett said. Like all the Godin children, Brayden has called Shirley “G-G-ma” (pronounced gee-gee-ma and short for great-grandma) since he started talking.
“We’ll talk about Mom and Dad or who that special person is,” Bartlett said. “And he’ll say that’s my G-G-ma and my Papa. He doesn’t hide the fact that he lives with them. He always has something to share about what the family did.”
On Mother’s Day, the children showered their great-grandmother with love. Destiny’s card called her the “bestest bestest” grandma ever. In Macaylee’s preschool class, the 5-year-old answered questions about her grandma for a card. One said: “What is your grandma’s name?”
“My grandma’s name is Mommy,” Macaylee responded.
The community surrounding the Youngs, particularly their church congregation, has seen the difference they’ve made and tried to help. The church raised $5,000 in one day to assist the Youngs with legal and filing fees for the children’s resident-alien cards. Last month, a work crew from church spent a Saturday putting a roof and walls on the garage Chuck started building before the custody battle began. When the Youngs were sick, friends sent casseroles.
“You have a couple of folks there that have a keen sense of responsibility about their great-grandkids that are caught up in the system,” said Pastor Ron Hunter. When the Youngs learned the Canadian government was considering adopting the children out, “They just said, ‘No, that’s not acceptable. We will love them. We will give them security and a good environment.’ That’s the right thing to do,” Hunter said. “When you do the right thing, people respond to that.”
‘Like a ship, slowly sinking’
Despite the support from the church and their Relatives as Parents group, the Youngs are struggling to find some sort of health care coverage for the four children. So far they have not been eligible for financial support programs, such as Medicaid or foster care stipends, from either the United States or Canada. The children are caught between two countries, citizens of one, living in another.
Medical bills are piling up.
The Youngs have given up their retirement to provide the children a solid start in life, and now it appears they’ll sacrifice their savings as well.
Glenda Weaver, leader of the Relatives as Parents group, said she is searching for ways to help.
“I look at them like a ship, slowly sinking,” Weaver said. “All they did is step up to give these children a home and get them out of the system, and it seems like they’re getting kicked in the face at every turn.”
Shirley Young hopes that her granddaughter, Desiree Joulie, will improve her life enough to warrant custody or at least unsupervised visits with her children. The 29-year-old woman calls the kids every night and works two jobs with hopes of earning more rights to care for them. Joulie’s mother was granted interim custody of the children, but that arrangement ultimately was rejected.
While the provincial government in British Columbia retained jurisdiction over the children’s custody, the order does not mention any possibility for either Joulie or the children’s father, Eric Godin, to regain custody. Joulie and Godin, who never married, both have long case files with Canada’s Ministry of Children and Family Development, social service reports show.
On Mother’s Day weekend, the Youngs drove three hours to Cranbrook to deliver the children to an overnight visit with Godin, who has unsupervised visitation rights but does not drive. In June, they’ll return to Canada so the children can have a longer visit with their father and their first visit with their mother in two years.
Joulie said she is relieved that her children are living with her grandparents, although she was devastated to lose them. “My kids are happy there. I can see it in the pictures I get from them,” Joulie said. “When I talk to them, they’re excited about things they did that day.”
The Youngs try to plan for the future, but so many uncertainties remain. They will not know until July whether the tumor in Chuck’s lung is growing. They’ve thought of moving to Canada, where the family would receive government-provided health care, but they don’t want to erase the gains the children have made at home and school by uprooting them again.
After being taken from their mother, spending two years in foster care and three years in a stable home environment, the children are happy in school and have made friends.“We just now I think have a purpose in life. I know where I belong. I’m a mom. I’m a mom again at 68,” Shirley Young said. “I’ll do whatever I can for them. They have my life.”