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McKaila Steffes left a legacy of caring and kindness toward others

Young Nuggets fan inspired others during valiant cancer fight

At a time in her life when most 10-year-olds were making Christmas lists, McKaila Steffes had a bucket list.

There were certain things she wanted to do before she died.

McKaila always thought of others before herself, so the list focused on her immediate family. She wanted to give them something to remember her by after she was gone.

For her dad, she painted a picture of the two of them dancing in the rain. For her mom, McKaila found a special necklace during a mother-daughter day at the mall. And for her little brother Wyatt, she bought him presents and dedicated an entire day to being nice to him.

As for herself, there was one thing that McKaila wanted that she couldn’t buy in any store. While she and her friend Josh were riding together on an elevator at school, McKaila leaned in and gave him a quick peck on the lips.

“She made sure she got her first kiss,” her mom Sandie Steffes said. “Josh still talks about it.”

Nearly five years after dying from a rare form of cancer, McKaila is still giving her friends, family and fellow cancer patients plenty to talk about. They will gather on Sept. 24 at South High School for a kickball tournament to benefit the McKaila J. Steffes Foundation.

The foundation provides financial assistance for pediatric cancer patients and their families at The Children’s Hospital and Presbyterian St. Luke’s Hospital in Denver, and MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital in Houston.

“Our community and family and friends were so overwhelmingly generous to us, we had funds available to help with her treatments,” Sandie Steffes said. “We were able to pay our medical bills and there was still a lot of money left. We decided to use that money and pay it forward and help other families.”

McKaila was a huge Nuggets fan and loved to play basketball, but kickball was one of her favorite activities at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School in Denver. St. Vincent created a fifth-grade scholarship in her name, and the first recipient mentioned kickball in his thank-you letter to the Steffes family.

“He said that she had a great spirit and took the time to help him play kickball at recess,” Sandie said. “I’ve heard many stories of her going for the underdog and helping people who needed help.”

McKaila became an underdog at age 2 when she was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis, a genetic illness that causes tumors in the nervous system. In 2005, Sandie and her husband Dan Steffes – a senior videographer/editor for Altitude Sports & Entertainment – received the type of news that no parent should ever have to hear. The tumors were malignant. McKaila had developed an incurable form of cancer.

“Your whole life as a parent, you’re the security blanket to your kids,” said Nuggets coach George Karl, a two-time cancer survivor whose son Coby survived thyroid cancer. “When you are not able to do your job, you feel helpless. Cancer scares everybody. Even thinking about it scares the hell out of you.

“We act like big tough guys and competitors and we’re not afraid, but when you get dealt cancer, no one’s tough in that situation. It’s emotional. You need support, you need love. The whole thing is to stay together and get through it.”

At the time of McKaila’s diagnosis, one of her cousins was going through treatment for leukemia. Sandie sought advice from the cousin's mom, who told her to let McKaila “amaze you.”

“We just followed her lead,” Sandie said. “Even when she was getting some bad chemo, she’d bounce back. She’d want to go to school, she’d want to ride her bike, she’d want to play basketball. She never seemed to be scared. She probably was but she never let it show. She never let it get her down or said ‘Why me?’ ”

McKaila’s positive attitude toward life became contagious. From classmates and teachers to nurses and professional athletes, she made an impact on nearly everyone she met.

“She had this ability to light up a room and connect with people,” said Amy Yuratovac, basketball operations coordinator for the Denver Nuggets. “She always thought of other people before she thought of herself.”

Yuratovac was working as a community relations coordinator for Kroenke Sports & Entertainment when she first met McKaila. She and other KSE staffers often picked up McKaila from school and took her for a treat at Bonnie Brae Ice Cream.

“When she’s chowing down on ice cream with bubble gum on the side, you forget she’s sick,” said Melisa Bundy, a broadcast production supervisor for Altitude. “She was just a normal 9- or 10-year-old.”

Though she enjoyed watching Garfield and the movie Madagascar, McKaila seemed wise beyond her years. As she faced the realities of cancer, she selected songs that she wanted to be played at her funeral and put together a collage for display at the service.

McKaila with Brad May
Among those pictured in the collage was professional hockey player Brad May. The longtime NHL tough guy was playing for the Colorado Avalanche when he met McKaila during a visit to her school during the 2005-06 season. He gave her tickets to Avalanche games and even sat next to her once when he missed a game due to injury.

McKaila also attended Nuggets games, but her interests went well beyond sports.

She painted once a week at the studio of Denver artist Rodney Wallace, who sold her works for charity. When he asked how much they should sell the paintings for, McKaila gave him a matter-of-fact answer: “Oh, about $2,000.”

McKaila loved cracking jokes, but she was serious when she told the Make-A-Wish Foundation that she wanted to take a submarine to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean to see the Titanic. When told she had to stay within a budget, McKaila settled for a trip to Hollywood to visit the set of the Suite Life of Zack and Cody, one of her favorite television shows.

McKaila also danced along to the music of Hannah Montana at a concert in Denver, thanking her mom after nearly every song. While the excursions were enjoyable, McKaila’s health continued to deteriorate. At the urging of the nuns at St. Vincent de Paul and Dan’s boss at Altitude, the family took a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, in search of a miracle cure. Expenses for the trip were paid for by Altitude.

“It was the trip of a lifetime,” Sandie said. “There was one point where we thought she was going to get better because she was so lively and happy.”

After a busy day in Lourdes, Sandie took McKaila back to their hotel room to rest. McKaila told her mom that angels were talking to her. They were telling her that her family was going to be OK. She just needed to pray.

The prayers continued after the family’s return to Colorado, but McKaila finally succumbed to the cancer on Oct. 21, 2006.

Her memory lives on through her foundation and the people who knew her best.

Yuratovac and Bundy think of McKaila as an angel who sends them little messages throughout the year. McKaila loved snow, so they weren’t surprised when a blizzard hit Denver on Dec. 20, 2006. That just happened to be McKaila’s birthday.

“To this day, her smile warms me,” Bundy said. “It feels nice to have a guardian angel watching.”

McKaila’s brother Wyatt is a fifth-grader who has a picture of McKaila hanging in his room. He dedicates basketball games to his big sister and will sing the national anthem before the kickball tournament.

The third annual McKaila Ball will be a celebration of a girl who still knows how to bring people together.

It’s the type of event that surely would have been high on her list of things to do.


Aaron J. Lopez is the primary writer for Nuggets.com, providing behind-the-scenes content, including feature stories and video for the site. Before joining the Nuggets in 2009, he spent 15 years covering Colorado sports for the Rocky Mountain News and the Associated Press, making him one of the longest-tenured sports writers in Denver. Aaron's full bio...