WALLA WALLA, Wash. — A Washington farm family every year raises money for a charity that helps rural families that are in need of a place to stay when their child is in the hospital.
For the last 12 years, farmer Jeff Schulke and his family have grown a pumpkin patch to raise funds for Ronald McDonald House in memory of their son, Cooper, who died in 2002. He was 7 1/2 years old.
“He was just a great little kid, he was very sociable, he went into every room and talked to everybody,” Jeff Schulke said. “He was a really happy little guy.”
In August 2000, at age 5, Cooper developed a brain tumor that affected his vision and balance. The family drove him to Seattle for surgery. They spent three weeks there, eventually finding housing through the local Ronald McDonald House.
After surgery, the family took Cooper home. He entered kindergarten, but in the spring of 2001, the tumor returned. He had two more surgeries, and the family stayed at the Ronald McDonald House for a total of four months.
In 2002, the tumor returned again, and Cooper lost his battle.
In his memory, each year Schulke and his wife, Kara; son Campbell, now 19; and daughter Emerson, 14, invite people to help harvest 3 to 4 acres of pumpkins and then sell the crop, donating the proceeds to Ronald McDonald Houses.
“Everyone loves picking pumpkins,” Schulke said. “It’s the discovery in the patch. You find a big one or a little one or a whole bunch of weird-looking ones.”
The patch boasts 27 varieties of pumpkins, including orange, blue, pink, white, tall and skinny.
Schulke and his family then set up a “pumpkin patch” at their house in Walla Walla. Members of the public show up, make a donation and take a home a pumpkin.
“We’ll have up to 8,000 pounds of pumpkins leave our driveway in a day, or a weekend...,” he said.
They also deliver pumpkins to various area locations, including a Walla Walla coffeeshop, a meat shop and garden center in Waitsburg and a feed store in the Tri-Cities.
All proceeds go to Ronald McDonald House.
After Cooper passed away, the family wanted to do something to benefit the organization.
“You just had to do something during that fall time of year when (Cooper) passed away,” Schulke said. “It gives you focus and a way to channel all of that energy.”
Schulke’s mother and nephews originally grew miniature pumpkins. The family discovered a patch of “unintended” pumpkins. Son Campbell got the idea to do a pumpkin patch as their fundraiser.
They aim to raise $15,000 this year. The most they’ve raised is a little more than $18,000.
Schulke asks people to make donations directly to their local Ronald McDonald House.
“We’re not looking to make our donation go any bigger,” he said.
The organization serves mostly rural residents who live outside major metropolitan areas, where specialized treatment is available, he said.
“You go there, your life is in a wreck ... and you’re going to be there three months, what do you do? You live two and a half hours away, you can’t commute, you’ve got to be right there,” he said. “You have to live some place. It is definitely geared towards us who live in the rural areas.”
The family plans to continue the pumpkin patch every year.
When Cooper first got sick, Schulke said, the family tried to handle it all on their own.
“We thought people were giving pity, but it’s grace,” he said. “They’re being gracious. You definitely learn to receive charity. So now we’re teaching people how to be charitable.”