'Gideon's Army' rallies around 4-year-old boy

Hundreds of hot rodders turn out for Camas cancer patient

By Stover E. Harger III, Columbian neighborhood news coordinator

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For one night, at least, the 4-year-old boy didn't think about the terrifying truth of cancer.

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Learn about Gideon Janku and his condition, click here.

Or check out “Gideon’s Army” on Facebook

When Gideon Janku went to sleep May 16, next to parents Dee-Anna and Scott at their Camas home, he wasn't sad or scared. He never once uttered the word "cancer," a topic that has consumed the family since Gideon was diagnosed with Spitz melanoma in May 2013.

Instead, the boy's mind raced with thoughts of hot rods, mudders and a monster truck named "Hope."

Over and over again, he'd drift off to sleep, then spring to life to talk more about the unbelievable night where hundreds of vehicles and thousands of people filled the Home Depot parking lot in east Vancouver.

And it was all for him.

A few months earlier his mom's heart ached when Gideon told her he didn't want to go to the same store, normally his favorite place. A large portion of his left cheek was gone after a series of surgeries to remove melanoma. "I don't want them to see me," he told her.

But last week, he didn't mind when all eyes were on him, many tearful, as he strolled for a few giddy hours in a sea of purring hot rods.

That evening, Gideon smiled. Even though his family had just learned a few days earlier that he had three enlarged lymph nodes that needed to be removed.

"He just wants to be a 4-year-old boy and not always have to remember (he has cancer)," Dee-Anna said. "That night he did not think about it for one minute."

Gideon's melanoma, rarely found in children, is being treated at the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. The family has had to go back and forth to Memphis for checkups and surgery.

They're still battling.

"There is currently no cure for pediatric melanoma," Dee-Anna said. "The best chance for a good outcome is to catch it early, however most cases, like Gideon's, end up with a severely delayed diagnosis because most doctors don't suspect melanoma in young children. Gideon's prognosis is hard to determine. It will depend on if and how far the disease spreads, which is why regular scans and quarterly skin checks are important. Even with that, it is hard to know where this journey will take us."

Next month, when the family of seven returns from their Make-A-Wish trip to Disney World, they'll take Gideon back to St. Jude for another round of surgery to remove the newly discovered hard lumps in his neck, which have grown at a steady pace. Dee-Anna said doctors suspect the cancer is metastatic.

But that's in June. Right now, Dee-Anna said, it's about letting Gideon be a happy boy, as carefree as possible. While flying to Florida on Tuesday, Gideon gave candy to passengers and handed out Matchbox cars — presents from his May 16 Make-A-Wish event at Home Depot — to every other child on the plane.

The first time he went for treatment at St. Jude, Gideon brought his toy cars with him. But he came home with none.

"He gave them all away to other kids," Dee-Anna said.

The Home Depot event last week started as a small one, where a few dozen local hot rod owners planned to park in front of the store to surprise the boy as a send-off before his big trip to Disney World and other Florida amusement parks. But once the car community caught wind of the plan, through word of mouth and social media, it spread like wildfire.

'Divine intervention'

Renee Morgan didn't know the Janku family until she saw a posting on Facebook last week about a Make-A-Wish gathering that was trying to locate a monster truck. The Vancouver resident took it upon herself to ask around to see if she could find any leads.

During a post-workout stop at All Star Nutrition, Megan Caseday overheard Morgan talking about how she was hoping to find a big truck from the area to surprise a sick boy. Megan knew what to do.

Megan got on the phone with her uncle Duane Caseday, who organizes the annual Portland Roadster Show with his wife, Ginny.

"And within five minutes (Megan) said, 'I have a truck for you,'?" Morgan said. "The whole process from there, it happened so quickly. And that truck being called 'Hope?' It couldn't have happened more perfectly."

Once the Casedays lined up an appearance by the monster truck, owned by Tammi and Jim Burns from Sublimity, Ore., the car enthusiasts helped spread the word. It exploded from there as more and more of the car community began hearing about the gathering.

"What are the chances of this Renee woman going into a nutrition center talking about a monster truck and my niece just happening to be there and knowing the contacts and getting from point A to point B without divine intervention? I know that God was working with us," Ginny Caseday said.

'Gideon's Army'

Fifty car owners said they were coming. Then 100. Then 300. Eventually 600 rolled in. The Portland Roadster Show only draws about 400, Ginny said, and that takes them all year to plan. "Gideon's Army," what his supporters have taken to calling themselves, rallied that many vehicles in days.

But Ginny was nervous at first when she called Home Depot to warn the store that their numbers were snowballing.

"Initially I said 50-plus," she said. "But then I said, 'I need to be honest with you, we'll have a lot more than that.'"

But that wasn't a problem for Home Depot. Gideon is known by staff at the store because of his many trips there with his parents, both contractors. So even though having that many cars meant business would grind to a halt that day, Pro Desk Manager Troy Batten said come one, come all.

"We told nobody 'no,' we told everyone to come," Batten said. "It's not always about business, it's about doing the right thing."

At the makeshift car show, where Gideon's Army banners decorated the parking lot and engines revved in support, Gideon happily hopped into Hope for a ride with his dad.

"I know there was not a dry eye in that parking lot," Ginny said. "Everybody tried to keep the tears away so Gideon wouldn't know there was any sadness there. But it was hard. It was really hard to not just stand there and cry."

Ginny and Duane, along with Renee and other champions of Gideon, plan to support the boy and his family through their battle.

"We are going to be a big part of this for as long as he has," Ginny said. "We plan on being a part of Gideon's Army for a long time."

Though Gideon is facing an uncertain future, his mother said the overwhelming kindness of the thousands of strangers who applauded him last week touched their family to the core.

"It was really incredible. It was every little boy's dream," Dee-Anna said. "I think he'll remember it the rest of his life."