By Timna Understein – A few days ago, I was sifting through the predominantly dreadful newsfeed on Facebook, attempting to catch a lump of happiness in my sieve, something kindhearted and pleasant, warm and calming, possibly. I did find that, ultimately… but in a very roundabout way, which started out by seeing a picture of myself… on a car… in California!
That’s right. I caught a glimpse of a picture, and thought, “WAIT, is that my face on that car?!” It was. And from that sighting, I have come to discover what HOPE and FAITH mean. Let me explain…. and introduce you to Kristi Nyhuis Donahue and Paula Sturdevant-Knappert… and to Hope and Faith!
I had known about Kristi and her incredible, one-of-a-kind Melanoma Mobile (a.k.a. “Mela-Mobile”), which is the Toyota RAV4 that she wrapped and emblazoned with facts about melanoma, along with collages featuring both the faces of children, teens and adults who lost their battle with melanoma, as well as those people fighting to raise awareness of this deadly disease. But, I was not aware that her creation had a proper name, nor did I know that her creation had a sibling! It was when I spotted my face on Paula’s 2015 Kia, her “Mela-Mobile,” that I began to investigate the stories behind these strong, inspiring women and their mission.
These woman ARE Hope and Faith. They are taking action, changing lives, inspiring others, supporting the warriors, honoring the taken.
This is Paula’s Story…
Melanoma entered my life in January 2012, when my daughter Keegan went to get a dark mole removed from under her arm. She had noticed that it was changing in color and size. The doctor said it was going to be easy to remove, and so it was. About a week after that, she went to get her stitches removed and got the word that it was stage 3 melanoma. Most people hear melanoma and think, “Oh, it’s just skin cancer!” Well, I can assure you it has the potential to be a whole lot more than that! Keegan passed away at the age of 24, after a three year battle with melanoma.
This is Kristi’s story…
Melanoma touched me four years ago, when a mole I had my whole life turned black (during my pregnancy with my now 5-year-old). I asked my general doctor three times over the course of a year, and all three times he told me it was nothing. I finally went to a dermatologist to talk about Botox, and asked her about my mole. It was biopsied. Two weeks later, to my shock, she told me it was melanoma stage 1a. From that point on, I began to educate myself like crazy, and through that education I learned how deadly this disease is, how many are now being diagnosed, how many KIDS are being affected, and lastly, how easy it was for me, as a barber, to help someone catch melanoma early… I have helped to find melanoma on a couple of different customers (I’m a barber), and annoyed a few hundred I am sure. I have literally made it my mission to honor beautiful angels like Keegan, and so many others, as well as all of the brave and incredible people currently battling this disease.
What are these two women doing to help raise awareness of this disease, you ask. Keep reading…
Meet HOPE… Kristi’s Mela-Mobile!
Meet FAITH… Paula’s Mela-Mobile!
Q: How did the “Mela-Mobile” idea come to you?
A: Kristi (HOPE) – I was getting very frustrated, and feeling defeated when I would attempt to talk to people about melanoma. They would roll their eyes and tune me out, so I continued to try and find new visuals that would impact them. One of my friends on Facebook, Susan Visch Hayes, created these amazing billboards that have been put up in various areas with short but impactful statements, as well as the faces of those that we have lost (including her young daughter Jillian) and those that are currently battling. I began thinking about how I could add stuff to my car. It was going to be large magnets, but then a customer at work convinced me that it had to be much bigger and bolder, like a complete car wrap. This gentleman suggested that I create a fundraiser which I did, and was able to raise all of the funds within 6 weeks!
A: Paula (FAITH) – I was blessed to follow Kristi’s vision; she was the creator of the “Mela-Mobile”. When my daughter met Kristi, and saw the car, she was speechless, because there were so many little children (pediatric melanoma warriors) on her car. Keegan’s passion at the end of her life became about getting the “melanoma is for old people” mentality out of people’s minds.
Q: What are your dreams in terms of what HOPE and FAITH can do?
A: Kristi (HOPE) – I believe 100% that Hope and Faith will educate, bring much desperately needed awareness to this horrific disease, and ultimately save lives.
Q: What are some of the responses/reactions you get from HOPE and FAITH?
A: Kristi (HOPE) – Hope and Faith have created many conversations, commanded a LOT of attention to the details on our cars, not only by passers-by, but by people who purposely stop to learn, admit that they have “no idea” that melanoma is so deadly, or that it can affect our youth. In the spring, I was asked to bring Hope to several events, particularly during May (Melanoma Awareness Month), because being able to read up close like that, and put the faces to the disease has made much more of an impact than just reading about the disease online.
A: Paula (FAITH) – I have people stop me on the road. At first it felt weird because I felt like people were looking at me. It took me a bit to realize they were reading the car. Mission accomplished! The main reaction is that people think melanoma is “just skin cancer.” When I get the chance to tell them that it can travel to the liver and lungs and the brain, they are dumbfounded. I have received emails upon emails from clients/friends/family that have sent their kids to the dermatologist.
Q: How did the two of you connect?
A: Kristi (HOPE) – I was at Nordstrom one night (where Paula worked), and I was looking for a dress to attend an event called Surfboards on Parade (raising money for skin cancer). I had just had a biopsy on my arm, so I told her that I needed a dress that would cover. Paula IMMEDIATELY asked me if I had melanoma, which took me by surprise because not many people go right there. I said yes I did, but this was not melanoma, just a biopsy. Paula then proceeded to get very emotional and tell me that her 23-year-old daughter was currently battling stage 4 melanoma. We both began to cry, and all of a sudden the dress was the LAST thing on my mind. As we spoke further, I realized that she was not connected to much support, nor was her daughter Keegan (specifically melanoma support), so I then made it my mission to connect Paula and Keegan with as much help and support that I could, and through it all we have became life long friends. I met Keegan only a few times, but instantly knew that she was the most beautiful soul that you could ever know, and when she passed away in August it changed me forever. I have been a part of this amazing melanoma community for 4 years now, made the most incredible connections, but Keegan was the first up close and personal friend that I have lost. To watch what Paula went through, and to know what all of these beautiful families go through because of this beast… it’s absolutely devastating.
A: Paula (FAITH) – Kristi has a special needs son. Small world… he was in my sister’s class. When my sister told Kristi that Keegan had melanoma, we connected immediately. Kristi is the MEGA information source, as she is fighting the disease herself. Keegan had the opportunity to share her story with Kristi firsthand. Kristi walked me through each step of trials, to failures, to death. I’m so blessed to have her as a friend!
“I feel a sense of pride, knowing that everywhere I go, every day, someone will see my car, and walk away with just one piece of information that they did not know before.” – Kristi
Q: What emotions fill you when you step into HOPE and FAITH? While you are driving?
A: Kristi (HOPE) – When I get into Hope every day, I feel this safety that I cannot explain. I know that all of those beautiful angels and warriors are protecting me, and helping me on my mission every day. I feel a sense of pride, knowing that everywhere I go, every day, someone will see my car, and walk away with just one piece of information that they did not know before.
A: Paula (FAITH) – When I get in the car in the morning, I say “hi” to my daughter every day. I tell her where we are going, and like the Dr. Seuss book Oh, the Places You’ll Go, I take each day as an adventure in sharing information. I love when I see people reading my car, and taking pictures in front of my car… I know they have been touched.
These woman ARE Hope and Faith. They are taking action, changing lives, inspiring others, supporting the warriors, honoring the taken… sprinkling hope and faith, something we could all use more of! As Desmond Tutu says, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”
Thank you Kristi and Paula… and Keegan… and all melanoma warriors. To learn more about Paula’s organization that she founded in honor of her daughter, please visit Keegan’s Kids Foundation for Pediatric Melanoma.
About The Author
Timna Understein is a melanoma warrior who has bravely battled this disease three times since 2008, along with a Primary Acquired Melanosis of her left eye in 2012. Read her inspiring story here.
She is also the Woman You Should Know who founded Respect The Rays, a comprehensive melanoma education and awareness movement that targets young people. Follow Respect The Rays on Facebook.