The U.S. ag community supports a young girl who is fighting leukemia half a world away.
A child fighting leukemia in the Philippines faces a significant disadvantage compared with a child in this country. For one girl, the U.S. agricultural community stepped up to make a difference. Thanks to Bob Kemerait, Ph.D., extension specialist in the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at the University of Georgia, the world has gotten a little smaller and a lot more compassionate.
“I work a lot in agriculture around the world,” Kemerait says. “And one of the places where I work is the Philippines.” Over the past 20 years, he has worked closely with colleagues in the country, visiting frequently to help the farmers there, and ultimately acquiring a wide array of friends. He and his wife, who is from the Philippines, also vacation there.
Kemerait’s trips are normally routed through Manila, and he’s come to know some of the families living in the capital city – including some from impoverished backgrounds. During his stays, he often invites them to participate in fun activities to bring a little sunshine into their lives.
On a visit to Manila several years ago, Kemerait invited Rema, a family friend, and her children to go swimming and then to eat at a local restaurant. Rema brought along her cousin’s 6-year-old daughter Rhianna “Ula” Jhane – whom she refers to as her niece.
“Ula stood out from the other children because, though she was small in stature, she was filled with exuberance,” Kemerait says.
After Rema told me about Ula’s diagnosis, I decided I had to do something for that sweet girl, her mother and her aunt. I didn’t quite know what could be done; but I knew if Ula would fight, then I would fight beside her.
Ula lives with her mother, Josiephine, and her 3-year-old brother, Ar-J, in Navotas, a hard-scrabble coastal town located within Metro Manila.
In 2021, Josiephine noticed that Ula was having difficulty walking and experiencing pain in her hips. The once active Ula had little to no energy. Josiephine scraped together the money to take Ula to the hospital. Following that visit, she called on Kemerait to help her understand the diagnosis. Kemerait and his wife, Pam, working through the medical system, eventually learned that Ula had Childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL).
Childhood ALL is a type of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow and worsens without proper treatment, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy. However, this type of treatment requires access to appropriate medical care and money to fund it, both of which can be major obstacles for children from Navotas. Kemerait’s research revealed that a child in the United States who is diagnosed with this same type of cancer has a 90% chance of survival; for a child without ready access to medical care, the disease is a death sentence. This disparity was inconceivable to him.
“After Rema told me about Ula’s diagnosis, I decided I had to do something for that sweet girl, her mother and her aunt,” Kemerait says. “I didn’t quite know what could be done; but I knew if Ula would fight, then I would fight beside her.”
As this ordeal developed, Kemerait shared Ula’s story on social media. The outpouring of support he received for Ula was immediate and astonishing. People he hadn’t seen in years — and current acquaintances like Chip Blalock, the executive director of the Sunbelt Agricultural Expo — wanted to help support Ula’s treatment.
“When a man like Dr. Kemerait champions a cause, you know it’s important,” Blalock says. “He has never asked for a dime [for Ula], and it shows how much people think of him when they are willing to help someone on the other side of the globe.”
Blalock decided to help Ula and asked if Kemerait had Venmo®. Kemerait responded, “Well, I do now.”
Kemerait also familiarized himself with other electronic payment platforms that made donations to Ula possible, including Zelle®, PayPal® and Cash App®.
Kemerait says it’s incredible how many people in the industry came together to support a child thousands of miles away. Upon learning of Ula’s plight, attendees from various growers’ conferences came forward quietly to hand him donations. Meanwhile, farmers from four states reached out to contribute.
“At one growers’ conference, a colleague slipped a $100 bill in my hand,” Kemerait says. “Farmers from all over, some of whom I’ve never met personally, joined to support Ula’s cause.”
Randy Thrash of Randy Thrash Farms and Produce in Albany, Georgia, is one such farmer. Thrash regularly donates to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital; but after reading Ula’s story on Facebook, he felt compelled to help.
“Farmers are some of the most compassionate people there are,” Thrash says. “I have more respect for Dr. Kemerait because of what he’s doing for that child.”
The financial support farmers and others in the ag community provided helped Ula celebrate her 11th birthday and Christmas with her family this past year.
Contributions for Ula’s treatment range from $10 to $5,000. In total this past year, Kemerait has raised close to $20,000. He carefully reviews bills from the hospital and attending physicians, then pays for Ula’s medical expenses and sends extra to Rema and Josiephine to buy nutritious food, such as bananas and other fresh fruits and vegetables, which would otherwise be out of reach financially for Ula’s family.
“It is important that Ula gets proper nutrition to help with the treatment,” Kemerait says. “It’s not only the illness we are treating, but we’re meeting her nutritional needs as well.”
Kemerait emphasizes that this story is about Ula, and he’s just the liaison to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, it is a common story for families around the world without access to life-saving medical care.
For Ula, however, the future is bright. She finished an aggressive treatment regime and is now in the maintenance phase of fighting cancer. Her condition continues improving, and her doctors are optimistic she will recover. Josiephine is grateful for the care and love that everyone has shown for Ula and her family.
“I would do anything I could to make my Ula healthy again,” Josiephine says. “But life is hard here, and it is so very difficult to take care of medical needs for this cancer. I am grateful to my cousin Rema for helping us. It is because of Rema that we know Dr. Kemerait and his family. As a mother, I am so very grateful to them.”
The doctors say that it will take a total of three years before Ula will be cancer free. Even though she still worries about her daughter’s continued health care needs, Josiephine trusts Kemerait and those contributing to Ula’s expenses. Their help is a bright light in a once hopeless place.
Kemerait only intended to share Ula’s story with his social media network. Now, almost a year later, his intention has brought much needed medical assistance to Ula and united many in the single goal to save a child.
If you would like to follow Ula’s story, please contact Kemerait on Facebook, where he shares daily updates and pictures about Ula’s progress.