After losing their son, Austin, when he was only 3 months old, to a degenerative muscular disorder they still don't have many answers about, Stephanie and Geoff Kallenberger were at an emotional crossroads.
What do you do when your child is taken from you way too soon, after months in the hospital and, finally, at home for hospice? The counseling they received from their pastor would not only help them get through the loss but use the experience as a way to help other families like theirs.
"How you move forward from this loss will determine your son's legacy," Stephanie Kallenberger recalled her pastor telling them. "It can either make you bitter or make you better."
So, they decided to work on the latter, founding Action for Austin a couple of months after their son's death. It's a nonprofit that aims to bring comfort to families with children in neonatal and pediatric intensive care units with holiday gifts throughout the year.
To help its mission, the organization is holding its third annual poker tournament on Saturday at Temblor Brewing Co., with dinner, dessert and raffle items also on tap.
"It's a super fun night," said Katelyn Huntington, who handles marketing for the nonprofit.
Since Halloween 2012, Kallenberger and other members of the Action for Austin team (which also includes co-founder Lynn Bradshaw) have been visiting families in local hospitals as well as out-of-town hospitals like Children's Hospital of Central California Madera, Cedars-Sinai, UCLA, Henry Mayo and Children's Hospital of Los Angeles, helping a total of 366 NICU families and 200 PICU families.
"Being in there can be very isolating," Kallenberger said. "It helps them to know someone is there for them who's been there before, that regardless of the outcome, they'll make it through."
For Halloween, Christmas and Easter, Kallenberger and her team deliver or ship hats for the babies, stress balls for the parents and other goodies, all with a holiday theme.
The stress balls, Kallenberger and Huntington said, always get a good response. They come with a card letting parents know how to use them: "So you have something to squeeze when your baby is going through a test, procedure or surgery," is one reason. "So you can throw it at the doctor when you don't like their news," is another.
Huntington said the parents appreciate the gifts, as well as the solidarity in hearing from someone who has been where they are.
"Most are so overwhelmed, they can't talk to us at the time," Huntington said. "Most of the response we hear is a day or two after, they'll send us a message saying thank you. It's a glimpse of hope on that particular day."
The organization also gives gas cards to families making regular trips out of town, and it has also sponsored families' stays at the Ronald McDonald House.
Kallenberger's experience with Austin in hospitals was understandably difficult but it's given her perspective to know just how to help families going through the same thing. She's busy now with five daughters (three born before Austin, two after), but helping others is something she feels called to do.
"There are a lot of families just struggling," Kallenberger said. "You're worried about your child making it, you're worried about paying your bills ... Helping them has been a huge blessing."
And now, the community can help Action for Austin serve those families, all while having fun and possibly winning some prizes at this weekend's poker tournament.
The event started out, briefly, as a men's poker tournament, Kallenberger and Huntington said. They wanted the fundraiser to be something their husbands could get involved in, but when it turned out there were plenty of women interested too, the tournament became co-ed by the time the first one happened.
The night's winner will receive $1,200, with cash prizes for the top eight. Guests can also test their luck with a raffle, which includes prizes like Dodgers tickets, a grill, a fire pit, a Napa vacation, a $500 drone and more.
The tournament includes dinner, but those who would rather just eat have the option of a dinner-only ticket. Guests can enjoy food from Tacos Lupita, beer from Temblor and a lineup of sweets you can't buy in any store.
"The homemade dessert bar has been a hit every year," Kallenberger said.
Helping Action for Austin put on the poker tournament, either with financial donations or raffle items, are local business including SunSolar, Papich Construction, Monarch Mini Storage, Loop Electric, Bakersfield Condors, Ferguson, Double-Tap Firearms, Allstate Boring, RLH, ConCastCo, BC Laboratories Inc. and CV Shoring.
"These businesses that help us — I'm just blown away," Kallenberger said. "This year, they're sending us stuff before we've even asked. They are local businesses that truly care about people in our community."
The tournament is Action for Austin's main fundraiser and it's growing fast. It raised $4,000 in its first year and $13,000 last year. This year, the goal is $20,000.
Kallenberger encouraged people to come to the tournament because anybody can be affected by having a child with health issues, and if and when that happens, Action for Austin will be there to help ease some of the pain.
"It's that familiar statement, 'That sort of thing doesn't happen to me,'" Kallenberger said. "Oh, it can. And we need each other."