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Go to the head of the C.L.A.S.S.

Posted: November 6, 2008 7:10 p.m.
Updated: November 7, 2008 4:59 a.m.

Diane and Chris Sumner spend a moment together. Chris Sumner was born 25 years ago with biliary atresia; he received a liver transplant at age 4. His mother co-founded the Children's Liver Association for Support Services.

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It was a bright, crisp fall afternoon on the patio of Mark and Diane Sumner's home overlooking San Francisquito Canyon where nearly 100 women gathered for the 15th Annual Children's Liver Association for Support Services Ladies Tea.

C.L.A.S.S. is an all-volunteer group formed because of the recognized need for an organization dedicated to addressing the emotional, educational and financial needs of families with children affected by liver disease and transplantation.

Diane Sumner is the C.L.A.S.S president and co-founder of the organization that provides online support services for families with a child suffering from acute liver disease, most often a condition called biliary atresia - the congenital absence or closure of the ducts that drain bile from the liver.

The Birth of C.L.A.S.S.
The Sumner's youngest son, Chris, was born 25 years ago with biliary atresia and desperately needed a liver transplant. The family moved to Southern California to be close to UCLA, the only facility on the West Coast that did the procedure. During weekly pediatric liver disease clinics, Diane Sumner met Ann Richardson, who was caring for her infant nephew, Michael, who also needed a transplant.

"I knew Diane since before Chris was transplanted when he was 4," Richardson said.

During the long months of waiting, Richardson said she and Sumner were dissatisfied with the lack of support services for parents.

"We felt we had to do something directly to help kids and families at UCLA," she said. "So we had to do it ourselves - we didn't like how other people did things. So Diane and I started with families at Christmas."

Richardson describes holidays at the hospital with potluck meals and wrapping presents for the kids.

But before he got his transplant at age 4, Chris Sumner still had to endure years of surgeries, transfusions and endless trips to the emergency room. Combine that with the fear and concern of his parents whose son had a rare disease they couldn't even pronounce. Before the debut of the Internet search engine Google, they couldn't find any medical information in laymen's terms - or an organization to answer their questions. So, in June 1995 the Sumners incorporated C.L.A.S.S. and in November produced its first newsletter. Their comprehensive Web site (www.classkids.org) also offers parents the opportunity to exchange photos and stories with other parents with a child who suffers from the same condition.

"We wanted to be able to really help parents directly," Diane Sumner said.

"It's just knowing there are other families out there," Richardson added. "We also focus on siblings and other family members."

Tea was always an important part of their first meetings and as such, it became a ritual to pass around a wooden box of Harney & Sons teas. Diane Sumner later approached the company owners and they agreed to make a blend of tea just for C.L.A.S.S. that is sold at their fundraisers.

The Ladies Who Tea
To raise the much-needed funds, the "classy" ladies Diane Sumner, Richardson and a devoted group board members, family and friends gather each year to drink Harney & Sons tea, nibble on tasty homemade teacakes, view a fashion show and hold a raffle of adorable gift baskets. Their goal is to raise more than $3,500 to maintain the Web site and help needy families with up to $750 each.

The ladies lunched on savories and sweets, in addition to the tea. For the fashion show, Lisa Hatchitt and Annie Schwartz of Fresh brought several cute outfits, adorable dresses, pantsuits and even cozy pajamas.

The models were Kate Clancy, Michelle Harkness, Sandra Shamrock and Sandra Shepard.

Then the fun began. This year, Diane Sumner's best friend, Melissa Morris (they met while neighbors at the Summit in Valencia) stepped up to call out the raffle tickets instead of "spending all day in the kitchen."

Laughing the entire time, Chris Sumner held the tumbler while his mom pulled the raffle tickets and Morris called out names.

Due to the generosity of the donors, it seemed there was a gift basket for everyone, including two pairs of genuine Fendi sunglasses, courtesy of Dr. Matthew Alpert of Woodland Hills.

One lucky recipient of the hot specs was Beverly Greaney, of the Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital Guild and the C.L.A.S.S. treasurer. She attended with daughter, Deborah Donovan, who was expecting her first baby.

Support for C.L.A.S.S. also comes from many people around the Southland, including Ann Richardson's good friend Pam Bieber who makes a baby quilt every year for the fundraiser.

Fiona McDonald
The guest speaker for the afternoon was 20-year-old Fiona McDonald from Claremont who was born with biliary atresia and still awaits a transplant. The luminous young woman described years of hospitalizations, surgeries, pain and sickness from the time she was an infant. Now, she suffers from lung congestion and endured rumors of being pregnant in high school due to her unusually large spleen that swells her abdomen. Asked how she survived her childhood in spite of such terrible odds, McDonald said, "It was just a miracle."

McDonald's mother, Peggy is the secretary of the C.L.A.S.S. board and became aware of organization when her daughter was an infant.

"A doctor told me to contact Diane," Peggy said. "She was the only information out there - she was a real godsend."

Currently Fiona McDonald studies fashion design at Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandizing.

Chris Sumner
Helping out during the tea party was the real "guest of honor," Chris Sumner.
After his transplant Chris Sumner was able to pursue a fairly normal life as a kid. The friendly and outgoing California State University, Northridge senior is set to graduate with a degree in music education, which requires him to have working knowledge of all musical instruments, from piano to string instruments and everything in between. When he is not at school full time, he works with the YMCA's before and after school programs at Castaic Middle School. He seems to have inherited his parents' sprit of giving back.

"If you are a Sumner or know a Sumner, you volunteer," he laughed.

The only signs Chris ever had a serious disease are the blood tests he has every three months and his annual checkup at UCLA. Luckily, his sister, Michelle Harkness, is a labor and delivery nurse at UCLA and draws his blood at home.

Insider stories
After some of the guests left, a small group of family and friends took the tea party inside the Sumner's spacious house to chat and eat. Even the husbands came out of the woodwork when the scones and tea sandwiches were made available.

The ever-exuberant Morris recalled hilarious stories of teas in the rain, grabbing ivy out of neighbor's yards for table decorations and hectic "teas on wheels" when everyone transported food, dishes and tables from house to house.

Now, the entire affair can be prepared inside the Sumner's enormous kitchen that has enough counterspace for a restaurant. But the camaraderie and spirit of giving among these women remains strong.

"Diane and I joined in helping families because there is a real need. They are overwhelmed by what they are going through - what they are experiencing," Richardson said. "And I am driven by what my mother always said, ‘Give back to make the community what you want it to be.'"

For more information, about C.L.A.S.S. visit www.classkids.org.

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