Four-year-old Jayden Heising wants to grow up “to be a photographer and chase dinosaurs,” his mother, Stephanie Stockfish, says with a laugh.
Now that the Billings Clinic Classic has reached its goal raising $4 million to expand its pediatric specialty care offerings, Heising could well enjoy that kind of rewarding, adventurous career.
Diagnosed at 15 months old with spinal muscular atrophy type 2, a rare and often fatal disease affecting the part of the nervous system that controls voluntary muscle movement, Heising stole the show early on at the Alberta Bair Theater by walking across the stage using a walker. He was rewarded with a standing ovation.
He’s been among the first recipients of Spinraza, a drug that’s improved his muscle strength. In the early days, Heising and his family had to journey to Seattle for treatments; now he receives the drug regimen at Billings Clinic.
"Adults are much better at feeling sorry for themselves and he doesn't have an ounce of that," said Dr. John Binder, a Billings Clinic pediatric neurologist. "He's just going at life at 100 mph."
The evening-long downtown street party that is the Billings Clinic Classic, now in its 35th year, met its $4 million fundraising goal four months early, said Jim Duncan, president of the Billings Clinic Foundation. Typically, the event raises more like $1 million.
“Christmas came early for us," he said. "I just think the pediatric cause is so important, and this is a very giving community."
Backed by the Billings Symphony Orchestra Saturday night, singer/songwriter Jewel, performing inside an Alberta Bair Theater sold out since June, sang standards including Harold Arlen’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” as well as her own many hits.
Jewel’s banter included this story about her 7-year-old son, who asked his mother one evening why he had to get dressed up to get dinner at a fancy restaurant with mom. “You never get dressed up, mom,” he told her.
“I’m a musician,” she told him. “I don’t have to get dressed up.”
Jewel rehearsed exactly once with the orchestra, said Anne Harrigan, Billings Symphony Orchestra’s music director.
“Our job is to make it look seamless,” Harrigan said. In fact, Jewel’s arranger, a friend of Harrigan, sent the arrangements to her weeks ago, and BSO musicians immediately began practicing their parts individually.
The only other time the singer has used these particular arrangements was last year, when Jewel sang with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. “We’ve set the bar kind of high,” Harrigan said of BSO's boffo performance.
Where the money’s going
Dr. Michelle Pierson, who chairs Billings Clinic’s Pediatrics Department, said that since pediatric specialty care is expensive, “we have to rely on a number of means that pay for our programs, including philanthropy.” The $4 million will pay for expanding facilities, taking care of family travel expenses and enhancing services, including telemedicine.
The rooms where young cancer patients receive infusions, which can take up to eight hours, “are closet size,” she said. “We’re going to expand that space for patients and their families.”
Liz Fulton, a former nurse at Billings Clinic, has worked more than two decades planning and setting up the event — and then striking it once the last guests leave after midnight. Hundreds of volunteers give their time and talent to keep expenses down.
“I don’t think I could be any other place,” she said. “It’s on my forever calendar.”
She said she remembers toting her baby while working on her first event. Her second child was not yet born.
Now one’s in medical school and the other is a nurse.
“It’s a little like the Hotel California,” she joked. “You can check out any time you like — but you can never leave.”
Giving til it feels good
Together with his wife Joan, Tom Scott, the retired chairman of First Interstate BankSystem and the chair of this year’s fundraiser, donated $1 million to the Classic, matching a similar gift given earlier to St. Vincent Healthcare.
“How can you help but do something?” he said. “These are young people who need a chance. When you’re a parent and there’s nothing you can do but sit beside your child, it’s heartbreaking.”
“We give,” he said, “because it makes us feel good.”
Duncan said the Classic will be altered a bit over the next two years while the Alberta Bair Theater undergoes renovation. Planners aren’t quite sure what that will look like, he said, and they’ll do well to match the warmth attendees felt inside and outside the theater.
“When Jayden came out on the stage — well, that’s what it’s all about,” Duncan said. “We are working hard to provide the best possible healthcare opportunities for kids and their families.”