Organizers keep blood donations flowing after Encinitas girl’s remission

If one pint of blood can save up to three lives, Kira Nunez’s story has helped save hundreds.

When the Encinitas girl was diagnosed with leukemia in the summer of 2012, family friends launched a blood drive in her honor. Three years later, the bi-monthly blood drive is still ongoing. Organizers hope to mark a major milestone in their efforts and reach 500 pints of blood during the next drive on Aug. 8 in Encinitas.

“So many people have stepped up,” said Jill Nunez, Kira’s mother. “It is so overwhelming. It tells you a lot about your community.”

In July 2012, Kira was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. At the time, she was 13 years old.

Family, friends and neighbors rallied around the Nunez family.

“Our world imploded,” Nunez recalled. “Honestly, much of that time is a blur of fear and pain, during which an amazing group of women mobilized an entire community to help us with meals and round-the-clock care for our daughter and our family.”

By August, two of Nunez’s closest friends, Maria Al-Shamma and Lisa Nava, organized a blood drive for the Kaiser Permanente Blood Donor Center at 6511 Mission Gorge Road in San Diego. Located near Kaiser Permanente San Diego Medical Center, the center helps meet the needs of the hospital, which is where Kira was treated.

“Usually folks who set up an initial blood drive for a patient may do a few, and once their loved one is better, they might discontinue the effort,” said Lillian Gonzalez, blood donor recruitment coordinator for the Kaiser Permanente Blood Donor Center. “Jill, Lisa and Maria have continued the tradition to help us provide blood for anyone.”

For more than two years, Kira underwent dozens of blood transfusions and multiple rounds of chemotherapy. Now 16 years old, she is in remission, yet the blood drive continues with new collections every eight to 10 weeks.

“She needed dozens of pints of blood in that first year,” Nunez said. “That’s where it started. People wanted to donate in her name.”

The first blood drive took place at the Leo Mullen Sports Park, with another later at Park Dale Lane Elementary School. The blood drive has been held in the parking lot of Garcia’s Mexican Restaurant ever since.

To date, the bi-monthly blood drive has collected 433 pints of blood. Organizers expect to surpass 450 pints at the next drive on Aug. 8, and through donations and pledges, hope to reach 500 pints.

“Seeing our whole community step up every time is a beautiful thing,” said Al-Shamma, whose family also lives in Encinitas. She and Nunez met about 10 years ago when their children attended Park Dale Lane Elementary School. “The community cares and comes together.”

Kira, who will start her junior year at La Costa Canyon High School in the fall, often attends the blood drives. She collects toys, book and arts and crafts supplies, which she assembles into “Kira’s Kits,” gift bags for the kids in the pediatric ward of Kaiser Permanente San Diego Medical Center.

Marking a major milestone, the next blood drive and celebration event will take place from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Aug. 8 behind Garcia’s Mexican Restaurant at 1486 Encinitas Blvd. To make an appointment, contact Al-Shamma at 760-715-1676 or Walk-ins are also accepted.

“Spend an hour of your time and save someone’s life,” Nunez said. “It’s just a really great feeling.”