Kim and Phil Vaillancourt celebrated two days before Christmas when their adoption of three sisters was finalized in Erie County Family Court.
The judge asked the couple whether they would always look after Kamila, 10; Josie, 7; and Chalie, 6.
“Yes,” they answered.
The adoption was a dream come true after three years fostering them in their Town of Tonawanda home, with their biological children, Ryan, 12, and Hailey, 11. Kim is also pregnant, and scheduled to give birth in early spring.
“The girls, even just looking at them during the process, they were beaming,” said Kim’s sister Meghan Eisenhauer. “Their legs were swinging, and they couldn’t wait for the judge to say it was finalized.”
But that joyous occasion was followed just a few days later with heartbreak.
Kim spent all Christmas Day on her parents’ couch, barely eating and complaining of a severe headache. Her sister knew that something was especially wrong, because it was unusual for Kim to complain.
MRI tests at Buffalo General Medical Center on Dec. 27 revealed the cause of her headaches – tumors on the left frontal lobe of Kim’s brain and her brain stem.
Two days later, she underwent eight hours of surgery to have them removed. A pathology report confirmed their worst fears: The aggressive cancer known as glioblastoma had reached Grade 4, giving her only six to eight months to live without treatment, doctors said.
The family was devastated.
“The No. 1 thing on her mind is making sure the baby is healthy,” Eisenhauer said of her sister’s unborn child. “She wants no chemo or radiation until the baby is at a safe point and can be delivered and live the fullest life that it can.”
As long as regular MRIs show no return of the tumors, Kim hopes to carry her baby to full term. Meanwhile, they’re consulting with doctors at Roswell Park Cancer Institute about treatment.
“She wants quality with the time that she has left,” said Eisenhauer, 23, the youngest of four sisters. “She is in very full awareness that this cancer is incurable. There is no cure. You get glioblastoma, you die of glioblastoma, whether it’s 10 years from now or six months from now.”
A mom with ‘biggest heart’
Kim, 36, and Phil, 37, were classmates in preschool in the City of Tonawanda, but didn’t realize that until a mutual friend introduced them and they started dating. They dated for four months and were engaged and married in 2000.
“They are each other’s best friends,” Eisenhauer said. “Proof is in the pudding. They were dating four months before they got engaged. So they just knew right away.”
They started a family with the arrival of Ryan, whose aunt described him as “supersmart” and a lover of history and the outdoors. “He’s his dad’s sidekick,” Eisenhauer said. “So if his dad is building, Ryan will get right into it.”
Soon afterward came the arrival of Hailey, who has “the biggest heart that a little girl could have” and likes to cook and clean.
But the Vaillancourts wanted their family to grow even bigger, and they underwent foster care training and certification classes through Gateway-Longview.
“It was always on Kim’s heart,” her sister said.
It wasn’t long before they got Kamila and Josie first. Chalie was with another family but soon joined them.
Kamila is the spunky one, a fashionista, says her aunt.
“She’s very into style,” Eisenhauer said.
Josie, who was born without limbs and uses prosthetics, has an endearing sense of humor that’s described as “hysterical.”
“The girl is so strong,” Eisenhauer said. “It has to be so tiring during a day to be able to take 5 minutes to walk upstairs when it takes us 30 seconds. But she does everything. I remember the first time I met her, she grabbed my phone with her elbows and slid it open with her lip.”
Chalie is the youngest.
“She’s the little one, so she really milks being the baby,” Eisenhauer said. “And she’s good at it.”
Chalie has a quick wit and likes arts and crafts.
“They took these three girls and made sure they feel love and have a family,” Eisenhauer said. “It’s heartbreaking that their mom’s going to be taken away.”
Kim has embraced her role as a stay-at-home mom.
“She’s got the biggest heart that you could ever imagine a mom having,” Eisenhauer said. “So the love that she has for her kids, and the love that she has for the three girls that came in, is just astonishing to watch.”
Phil has been employed for 17 years in the Town of Tonawanda’s wastewater treatment plant, currently as a senior maintenance worker. But now he faces the very real possibility of soon raising six children, including a newborn, as a single parent.
“It’s heartbreaking to see Phil hurting so bad because he doesn’t want her to be sick,” Eisenhauer said. “She’ll get sick from medicine, and that alone breaks his heart.”
Help from people who care
A GoFundMe page – gofundme.com/z2h9nhdw – to help the family with expenses such as its large grocery bills had raised $26,990 from 393 donations by Monday afternoon, far surpassing the initial goal of $7,500, which was exceeded on the first day.
“If you ever met Kim, you’d leave the room and you’d just have a big smile on your face,” said Jenna Koch, a longtime family friend who started the GoFundMe page.
“Whether you’ve known Kim for 15 minutes or 30 years, she’s impacted your life forever.”
Koch, who is also the City of Tonawanda Common Council’s president, graduated from Tonawanda High School with Kim’s sister, Kris. Kim is also a Tonawanda graduate, from the Class of 1997.
So far, all the support from their close circle of friends and family has been “overwhelming,” Eisenhauer said.
A system for providing the family with daily meals has been established. A gift bag with more than $1,000 in gift cards and cash was left anonymously.
On the day after Kim’s surgery, their sump pump stopped working, flooding the basement.
“My dad rushed over,” Eisenhauer said. “My dad, Kris and I got everything moved over, ripped the carpet out, brought it to the curb. His brother came over, cleaned the whole basement while we were at the hospital all day. You just see all of these people come together and help just because Kim and Phil have focused so much of their lives on helping others. You don’t even double-think helping them out at this time.”
They’ve outgrown their vehicle, and need a bigger one, possibly a minivan, to accommodate what will be a family of eight when the baby is born. They also may need to hire a nanny, or other help around the house.
For now, however, they’re focused on the next steps for Kim, and spending time together.
Recently, Kim was feeling well enough to register with Phil at a department store for baby shower gifts, getting carried away with the scanner gun and laughing that they ended up with 15 pages of items.
“She is progressing, definitely, but regardless of the bad situation she’s in, she is so high in spirits and so high in faith,” Eisenhauer said. “She’s the strongest person I know.”
‘Their hope is in God’
Why do bad things happen to good people?
That’s the question some of Kim and Phil’s friends and family have been asking themselves, but Kim and Phil haven’t.
“I obviously questioned everything when this happened,” Eisenhauer said. “God calls you to adopt three girls, and four days later, you’re diagnosed with cancer? Obviously, I have questions. But those questions don’t even come to their mind. They are just so faith-based. It is the biggest part of their life.”
The strength of that faith comes from being congregants of the The Chapel in Getzville, she said.
“They walked in with an open mind, and before they knew it, that was their life,” Eisenhauer said. “That is the center of their life. That’s the center of their marriage. That’s the center of raising their family.
John Camardo, executive pastor at The Chapel, said asking “Why?” is a natural response.
“But their faith is strong enough to say that they’re not going to let this challenge their faith,” he said. “If anything, they’re going to use it to strengthen their faith.”
Camardo and his wife, Donna, met the Vaillancourts about eight or nine years ago in a small Bible study group. About four years ago, the Camardos told the group that they were considering becoming foster parents, and the Vaillancourts said they had been thinking of it, as well. The couples went through training and certification together.
“They’re the ones that are encouraging us in many ways because they have their hopes set in something much bigger then themselves,” John Camardo said.
“Their hope is in God.”
And nothing can take away their memories of Dec. 23, when the couple agreed to take on the joy and challenges of embracing three sisters as their own.
“They look for every opportunity to serve, not to be served,” he said. “Taking that posture in life in general, it creates a beautiful family.”