TRINITY — It started out as a blood drive outside the Chili's on Little Road where they all work, but that went so well they wanted to keep going. So they stood outside the restaurant, in the median, asking for donations. "A guy who is a server at that Chili's, his 3-year-old daughter has cancer and they need money," they said.
Katie Schwener, a 21-year-old Chili's waiter and full-time college student, wanted it to hit home for people. Maybe they've eaten there before. Maybe they remember the waiter, the father, who gave them their food.
"People think, 'Oh that's a sad story.' But they see it as a story," said Schwener, whose father died from lung cancer when she was 10. "They don't think, 'This could be my child.'
"It's not comfortable for somebody to admit."
Schwener has only known Keith Olampo for a year, since the 38-year-old was laid off from his job as a construction supervisor and went back to waiting tables at Chili's, a job he did for 12 years before going into construction. Keith and his wife, Gina, have three children — Bekah, 6, Kyanna, 3, and Donovan, 2.
Gina works in billing at a health care company and, after Keith lost his job, she also worked part time at Home Depot. Keith's mother moved into their New Port Richey home.
Keith always enjoyed the tight-knit, family-atmosphere at Chili's and was happy to work with some of his former colleagues again — though he missed his construction job.
In late July, Kyanna ran a slight fever. So the Olampos took her to a doctor, who didn't like Kyanna's coloring and ran some tests. He ran them again, to make sure. Then he sent the family to the emergency room at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.
There, Kyanna was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells. She began chemotherapy immediately and, since that date, has spent more time in the hospital than out of it. The cancer should be curable, but her treatments will continue for 2 1/2 years.
Keith's co-workers felt helpless and wanted to do something. The Olampos have health insurance, but Keith said it's not covering many things, such as her outpatient care.
So Schwener and Melinda Dunn, 29, started organizing events. After raising $300 from passing cars, the two decided to keep going.
On Monday night, they're hosting a benefit at Jungle Bounce, a place in Holiday full of inflatable bouncy houses for kids to play in. All admissions are going to the Olampo family.
Kyanna is adamant about going, Keith said. On Thursday, she had been in the hospital because of a fever for 11 days. They hoped she could go home this weekend.
"She's so excited," Keith said.
Her hair has started falling out. But she hasn't complained. She just reminded her mother that — when she's bald — to put sunscreen on her head, so she doesn't get sunburned. She has to wear a mask in public, to ward off infections. And sometimes her doctors and visitors also have to wear masks around her. So Kyanna's favorite stuffed pink monkey that hangs on her IV cart also wears a mask.
Kyanna's bones ache and she's sometimes a bit wobbly. She said she doesn't want to wear a wig, just pretty scarves.
"My dad never complained — but I always thought it was because he was a man and he was strong," Schwener said of her father's passing. "But Kyanna is just 3 years old and she's taking it so well."
Schwener said more events are in the works.
Both Keith and Gina are still trying to work, but they are usually either at the hospital, on the road between New Port Richey and St. Petersburg or trying to maintain some kind of normalcy for their other two kids.
It has been rough, Keith said. But he's thankful for his co-workers and everyone who has helped his family — from donations and prayers to things like two of his co-workers taking his 6-year-old daughter back-to-school shopping, because Keith and Gina were with Kyanna.
"I'm so grateful," he said, from Kyanna's hospital room.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.