GILMAN — When Sophia Juarez passed away last year at the age of 11 from a rare form of brain cancer, she took along with her a piece of the hearts of those who loved and knew her best.
Her grandmother Tracy Catron, who was one of her caregivers, works to ensure Sophia is never forgotten. Childhood Cancer Awareness Month is recognized every September by various childhood cancer organizations around the world.
“It’s still hard. A year later, we see her all over our house. [But] she made it easy for us. She was ready to meet God and knew He had a different purpose for her. She was an inspiration to everybody,” Catron said. “I have nine different gardens on my property in Gilman, lighted up every night. There are also two memory gardens at East Marshall Middle School.”
In October 2021, it was discovered Sophia had diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), a brain tumor that is highly aggressive and hard to treat. Only about 300 children are diagnosed with it each year. It occurs in a part of the brainstem called the pons, which controls many of the body’s vital functions including breathing, blood pressure and heart rate. She died June 1, 2022.
“Of the four children, she was the one that hardly ever went to the doctor. That was the hardest thing. I worried, did I not see a sign? Did I not react fast enough?” Catron said of being blindsided by the disease.
Sophia’s three siblings, Keyshawn, Emily and Alex, divide their time between Catron and her husband Gary and their parents Megan and Moises Juarez, who live nearby.
“It works for us. We’re all one big happy family,” Catron said of the living arrangement.
Emily is a senior and Alex a sophomore. Keyshawn has graduated.
Catron said her employer, Swift Greenhouse, was kind enough to help her start her gardens. Sophia, too, provided input on which statues she wanted included in the design.
Each garden is enclosed by bricks and consists of different flowers and themes. They are ever-expanding. People often drop off plants and décor as contributions, while Sophia’s friends, neighbors and classmates (Class of 2029) help take care of the gardens. Her favorite colors, teal and purple, are represented throughout.
It’s become a therapeutic space for family, friends and neighbors to gather.
“It’s something to sit at, read a book at, talk to her. The gravesite is nice to go to, but I feel like Sophia’s in this garden. I feel like she’s here,” Catron noted.
Two additional gardens are in the works at the Catron residence.
“It’s less mowing for my husband,” she said with a laugh.
‘It takes a village’ is not only a saying, but also a fact of life for Catron and her family. Grinnell Hospice Care nurse Angie Wilson provided invaluable support, as did Kendra Happe, neighbor children Libby and CeCe, and many others.
“You would never have imagined the response from the communities around here. We wouldn’t have made it without everybody,” Catron said.
She noted that only four percent of the National Cancer Institute’s funding goes to research for childhood cancer, which amounts to $250 million of a $6.44 billion budget. She hopes that will change in the future.
The Facebook group Miss Sophia’s Village has almost 1,000 members. Catron said the forum is a negative-free space where people can share memories of Sophia. While some members are local, Catron said she’s been able to connect with people from all over the world, including families dealing with rare childhood cancers, too.
“It’s so uplifting to know people really care,” she said.