Fundraiser pays it forward for local family

Fundraiser pays it forward for local family

In October, Rebecca Arel, a graduate of Beacon Charter High School for the Arts, underwent brain surgery for a genetic condition called Chiari malformation. A dinner held next Thursday, Jan. 16, will raise money for her family.

WOONSOCKET – For the Arel family of Wood Avenue, giving to the community is a way of life. Since 2009, Christine Arel, along with her parents, Jeanne and Ovide Auger, and children, have held an annual toy drive in memory of her late brother, Ronald Auger. The drive, founded along with the Woonsocket Police Department to honor the former dispatcher, has become a staple of the city’s holiday events and collects hundreds of toys for local children every year.

Next week, however, the family will find themselves on the opposite side of the giving chain. On Thursday, Jan. 16, Hearts with Hope, a local nonprofit organization, will throw a pasta dinner to benefit the Arel family after Christine’s daughter, Rebecca, underwent brain surgery late last year.

“I’m always the one that does and does and does for people, so having them help me was really a hard pill to swallow,” Christine told The Breeze last week.

Rebecca, she explained, was only five or six years old when she started getting severe headaches. It took several years and the trauma of a car accident before doctors finally diagnosed her with Chiari malformation, a genetic condition where part of the brain extends into the spinal canal. Along with headaches, people with Chiari malformation can suffer from depression, dizziness and hand-eye coordination issues as a result of the pressure on the brain.

Though surgery can relieve some of the symptoms, the family initially decided to wait until Rebecca finished school, her mother explained. In 2018, Rebecca graduated from the culinary program at Beacon Charter High School for the Arts and moved to New York to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. She did well in the program, but her symptoms continued to get in the way of her ambitions. After her first semester, Christine said, Rebecca came home and did a job program at a restaurant in Newport. It was only after her daughter started coming home from work with injuries that she realized she was experiencing numbness in her hands – another symptom of Chiari malformation.

“Her headaches were so bad, she was cutting her fingers, burning herself, not realizing it because her hands and her arms were going numb,” Christine said.

On Oct. 22, 2019, Rebecca underwent surgery to relieve the pressure on her brain. The first few weeks were rough – a week later, she had to return to the hospital for emergency surgery to insert more stitches and stop a leak of spinal fluid. Still, as the weeks went on, it became clear the surgery was a success. Though she hates sitting home recovering, Christine said her daughter’s headaches have significantly improved and she’s stopped having numbness in her hands.

In the meantime, Christine had to take time off from her job as a student transport driver to take Rebecca to surgery. Friends and family, she said, were amazing during the recovery, forming a meal train and helping out with bills and other tasks. It was her friend Trisha L’Esperance who had the idea to apply to Hearts with Hope to help get the family back on their feet. The organization supports Woonsocket High School graduates and their family members who are dealing with serious medical conditions and other crises.

“It’s been nice to have amazing people in our corner, because it’s been a rough road,” Christine said.

Despite their hectic schedule, the family still managed to hold their annual toy drive, throwing two events at their home and the All Saints Church hall. Even Rebecca made an appearance, selling raffle tickets to help raise more than $4,000 for local families. Though she’s still recovering, Christine said her daughter’s quality of life has improved significantly. She recently took a part-time job working as a substitute teacher’s assistant in Woonsocket schools and looks forward to returning to culinary school – most likely at Johnson and Wales University – in the fall.

“It’s been a rough road, but she’s seeing the light at the end of the tunnel now,” she said.

A pasta and meatball dinner to benefit the Arel family will take place next Thursday, Jan. 16, from 6 to 9 p.m., at St. Joseph Veterans Association, 99 Louise St. Tickets are $20 for adults and $7 for children. Children age four and younger are admitted for free. To purchase tickets, contact Mike Heroux at 401-442-4744 or email

Donations may also be mailed to Hearts with Hope, Inc. PO Box 365, Woonsocket, RI 02895.