Since Daniela Ortiz was in kindergarten, she and her mother, Jill, spent time in the kitchen together.
The time together wasn’t always fodder for Hallmark cards. Maybe it was just about breakfast: Daniela and her little hands would help stir pancake batter. When she’s asked if this is how they spend time together, Jill shrugs.
“I do whatever she has me doing,” Jill says with the laugh of a veteran parent used to the whims of a busy teenager.
Sometimes that means taking her to see Billie Eilish or, more recently, Metallica. On the last eight Labor Day weekends, that has meant baking cookies to raise money for pediatric cancer research. This summer, especially, that has meant fighting her own cancer, so she can be around to see Daniela, a sophomore, graduate from Resurrection Christian School in Loveland in just a couple years.
Baking was always Daniela’s thing, besides the sci-fi books that fill the closet in her bedroom. It remains her favorite hobby, so much so that when her cookie fundraising event rolls around every Labor Day, she approaches it like a business.
“We have a spreadsheet now,” Jill says.
Daniela was in second grade when she thought it would be nice to bake cookies to raise money for Cookies for Kids’ Cancer. She’s not sure why she wanted to do that. Maybe it was because of a classmate who had cancer, or maybe she just loved baking. Maybe she enjoyed her time in the kitchen with her mom. Jill, of course, did much of the work.
Daniela had a goal of $500. She made $400, and she thinks that’s because Jill donated $200.
Marketing to the construction crews working down the street in their new Loveland neighborhood, along with a big sign, netted them more profit in the following years. They baked from morning until night and sold the goodies in their front yard for four hours on both Sunday and Monday every Labor Day weekend. Since then, their sales have doubled every year.
In 2019, when Jill was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, it turned out to be an effective marketing tool, even if it wasn’t ideal. Their numbers skyrocketed, both from cookie sales and donations, including a big one from an anonymous donor. It’s not like they made T-shirts advertising Jill’s cancer, but her story, and her ability to smile and laugh through the treatments, spurred a huge jump in interest, sales and donations.
The organization Daniela supports, Cookies for Kids’ Cancer, raises money for new, improved and less toxic pediatric cancer treatments. Jill obviously doesn’t have pediatric cancer—she’s 52—but it made the cause more real for Daniela.
“It motivated me more,” Daniela says. “I had to make sure I was better at it.”
People began to look forward to the bake sale every year. Daniela, in response, offered more flavors. This year, she baked chocolate chip, M&M and peanut butter cookies as well as cake pops, coconut macaroons, little French goodies and even cookies for dogs. Daniela tracks her sales through the spreadsheet and increases her profit margins—these are her words—by cutting cupcakes, which didn’t do well in years past (and she wasn’t very good at baking them anyway).
Daniela wants to be an aerospace engineer. She’ll go to any college that’ll take her. She’d like to attend CU or MIT, but she’s really not picky. She named her treats Galaxy Cookies after her dream.
This year, Daniela baked 74 dozen cookies. She’s raised $78,000 in the last eight years, and she hopes to raise $30,000 this year to cross the $100,000 mark, which would be enough to fund a research grant.
Jill says her cancer could have been worse, but it’s always been Stage 4, and there’s no Stage 5. What she means is that the chemo treatments weren’t too bad, she got to keep her hair throughout most of the cycles, and there were many times she felt like “a normal member of society.”
This summer, the cancer did, in fact, get worse. But there’s a story about it: Jill started seizing, and Daniela was in her pajamas (a tie-dye T-shirt and shorts), so to cover herself before dashing to the ER, she grabbed a heavy coat.
“It was July,” she says.
Jill has tears in her eyes as she tells this story, and it’s hard to tell if they’re from laughing or crying. Both, she answers.
At the time, the seizure, and the cancer in her brain that was diagnosed as a result, wasn’t funny. The story is funny now, but the result remains serious: There are eight spots on Jill’s brain. It’s not brain cancer, per se, and not as bad as a big tumor, she says, but she just wrapped up a round of radiation, and so her hair is falling out again, just like it did four years ago. She’s also doing chemotherapy, but that never really stopped. The whole thing has left her tired.
“I’m not really a rester,” Jill says, “and I spent two hours on the couch yesterday.”
However, she is proud of Daniela. It’s amazing that the sale has lasted this long, Jill says. Daniela was a little girl when she started, and now she’s a 16-year-old with a soft spot for Mötley Crüe. She does most of the work now. Jill has been promoted to sampler, or maybe “quality control” is a better title.
Still, Daniela can’t do it alone. Jill was gearing up just a few days before Labor Day weekend, ready to do anything her daughter would have her do. Maybe she could mix the peanut butter batter in a bowl, or just offer words of encouragement as the two spend time in the kitchen once again.