By Mary Stegmeir
The Des Moines Register
DES MOINES - An anonymous donor brought an Iowa boy with cancer and his family a bit of comfort and joy this Christmas.
A stack of $50 bills - $1,000 total - was mailed last week to The Des Moines Register with a typewritten note that the money was for Justin Chey and his family. A Register reporter and photographer hand-delivered the donation on Christmas Eve to the 13-year-old cancer patient.
No return address was included on the envelope. But a Waterloo, Iowa, postmark indicates the secret Santa hails from Iowa, a state that has overwhelmed the Chey family with support since Justin was profiled in the newspaper in October.
To know that Iowans continue to root for her son heartens Justin's mother, Kelly Chey, who moved to the U.S. from Cambodia in 1984.
"It helps so much," she said. "We know we're not alone."
Before his diagnosis, young Justin had been the glue that held together his immigrant family. While his single mother worked nights as a janitor, he cooked meals and cared for his two ailing grandparents.
Not wanting to worry others, Justin spent two months downplaying his headaches and nausea - symptoms of a tumor. He collapsed in pain Oct. 10 during a reading class at Hiatt Middle School.
Justin's cancer diagnosis shocked Kelly Chey. So has the community's response.
Kind souls from across the state - and the country - are pulling for Justin, she said.
"Everybody knows Justin's story," Kelly Chey said. "Everywhere I go, I see people (who) look like they know me, but I don't know them. They smile. Everyone's saying prayers."
The $1,000 in cash came in a white envelope without a person's name, simply addressed to The Des Moines Register, which like USA TODAY, is owned by Gannett Co. Inc.
"We so appreciate the donor's kindness," said Register interim editor Carol Hunter. "It illustrates the statewide generosity sparked by reporter Mary Stegmeir's original story and subsequent coverage by other Iowa media. We're grateful that the donor entrusted the Register to ensure the gift would reach the Cheys."
The Chey family planned to spend Christmas in quiet celebration. A Christmas tree and presents donated by the Des Moines-based Children's Cancer Connection fill the family's living room.
Starting in January, Justin hopes to return to school for two to three a hours a day. He also will learn about the next phase of his treatment.
A brain scan in November showed that his tumor had grown, prompting doctors to order six weeks of radiation therapy. He is scheduled to undergo another scan in January, and may soon begin chemotherapy, Kelly Chey said.
"We don't know what's going to happen," she said. "We're just taking it little by little."
Justin, weakened by his condition, will use a wheelchair once back at school. But he's making plans for his future. Justin has received more than $11,000 in donations since he was first profiled in the Register.
The seventh-grader put most of the money into a savings account to one day buy his family a bigger house. Other options for the cash include a car for himself or a family trip to Cambodia, he said.
Christmas surprises, like a kitten named Yoyo and the $1,000 anonymous donation, are especially welcome as the family anxiously awaits news of Justin's health, Kelly Chey said.
"For all the people who have given us support, I don't know how to say thank you," she said. "Without them, it (would be) hard for us. ... I never thought people would support us like this."
The Des Moines Register