Baum family

When a child faces a challenge – big or small – the YMCA of South Palm Beach County is ready to be part of the solution. One local family shares how Boca Raton’s Peter Blum Family Y became the village their son needed in all kinds of ways

As a little boy, Maxwell Reese was a handful. In fact, his mom, Rebecca Baum, describes his behavior as “difficult.” When he was in second grade and coming to the Peter Blum YMCA in Boca Raton for after-school programming, Baum’s heart sunk when she’d see staff approaching her car, asking her to step into the office for a chat. 

Max needed a safe place to go after school, and he loved the activities the Y offered. Sometimes, though, his exuberance got the best of him. The staff quickly identified the areas where Max struggled and put measures in place that would help give the 7-year-old the tools he needed to be successful. “It changed our lives,” Baum says. 

James Rodriguez, a Y program director, took up Max’s cause, instituting a behavior modification protocol and taking the time to listen to the boy’s frustrations about outcomes on the basketball court or other childhood worries. “Max was a wild child,” says Rodriguez, who strategized a plan with the family. “We all worked together to make sure Max was successful, and that was our only concern.”

Little did Rodriguez, Baum, or even Max know that the issues he faced in second grade would eventually be thought of as the small stuff. 

Max, along with all Y members, was sent home quickly when COVID-19 reared its head. Four months into the pandemic, the Baum family received devastating news: Max, who’d recently turned 8, had cancer. 

Though doctors assured the family that they knew how to effectively treat Max’s leukemia, the news was overwhelming. The boy would undergo three years of chemotherapy, have a port installed near his clavicle, and endure having medicine injected into the upper thigh muscles in both legs three to five times per week. Because his immune system would be shut down to conquer cancer and save his life, organized sports were off the table – as was any type of normal social activity that kids enjoy. 

That, Baum says, was just the beginning. Max’s leukemia treatment kept him from returning to school when pandemic restrictions lifted. He couldn’t eat strawberries or a multitude of other foods that might harbor bacteria that could overwhelm his compromised immune system. 

“Every minute of every day, you knew you were dealing with a boy with cancer,” Baum says. “It touched every inch of our life.”

When the Y reopened, Baum stopped in to let Rodriguez know why Max wasn’t back with his peers. 

“I’m not going to lie, the news hurt,” Rodriguez says. “It was a time when everybody was losing socialization, but for Max to lose it just when he needed it the most...I told Mom that we were here for whatever they needed.”

Max sat out from third and fourth grades, missing his classmates at Del Prado Elementary School. When fifth grade began, Baum decided it was time for Max to return, even though his health situation was still precarious. The family found the school to be very supportive – Max’s classmates were willing to mask up when the sniffles circulated to keep their friend safe. 

When the day came for Max to return to the Y, he came unannounced. Rodriguez caught sight of him and “had to pause for a second and get a hold of my emotions,” he says. Then, he sprang into action announcing that Max was back, gathering staff, coaches, and counselors to give an emotional welcome back.

Max wasn’t quite 100 percent, but he was eager to resume some of the Y sports activities he loved. Initially he had restrictions, so coaches, including his stepdad Eric Baum who volunteered to help Max be successful before he got sick, gave him positions that would help him avoid damaging his port and allow him the chance to regain some strength. Rodriguez said if Max had only been able to sit in a room playing board games with people wearing masks, he would have arranged it, just so the youngster could enjoy things other kids his age love. 

Today, Max is putting his battle with leukemia in the rearview mirror. He’s an 11-year-old sixth grader at Omni Middle School with two new siblings at home, 3-year-old Elizabeth and 1-year-old Teddy. At the Y, Max is building his flag football skills – and keeping his spirits up. 

Rodriguez refers to a recent game when Max became frustrated when he was up against a stronger player and down on his own skills. “I pulled him aside and told him to stop [the negative talk] because he was learning,” Rodriguez says. 

Baum says that’s been the message all along for her son – to take the challenges as they come and make small steps to overcome them. The more her family got involved, the more they learned how much the Y has to offer. Through the years, they’ve helped with fundraising, participated in after-school programs, coached sports, and never missed the chance to be in the bleachers cheering Max and his teammates on.

Baum says cancer has made her family stronger and more resilient and has also made her realize how valuable community support can be for a family.

“You can join and just go to the gym,” Baum says. “But the more we become involved, the more we make connections with other families, learn how diverse our community is, and realize how many people rely on the Y to get through their every day. It’s really special.” 


Story written by Kelley Marcellus.