When Debbie Haar pulled up to a Starbucks drive-through in Lake Elsinore, Calif., last month, it was a difficult day. Her 9-year-old son Cole was in the back seat, and they were on their way to his chemotherapy treatment.
As Haar reached out her car window to take her iced peppermint mocha and Cole’s apple juice, a Starbucks barista unexpectedly struck up a casual conversation.
“I was just at the window, being happy and cheerful, and just trying to be as positive as I can be during the pandemic,” said Eddie Aldrete, a 22-year-old Starbucks employee.
Knowing her son could use a pick-me-up, Haar took a small gamble. She rolled down the back-seat window of her car and asked the barista for a favor: “Could you tell Cole he’s going to kick cancer’s butt today?” she asked him.
That’s when the first pep talk happened. Aldrete turned to Cole, and said: “You can do this. We are all rooting for you. We are all behind you. You are strong, and you’re going to do great,” Haar, 44, recalled. The parting line of Aldrete’s unplanned pep talk was, “You got this, buddy.”
Aldrete’s spur-of-the-moment motivational speech “cheered him up so much,” Haar said. “It was like night and day.”
So much, she said, that Cole wanted to visit his new supporter before and after every chemo treatment.
So the Haars started going to the Starbucks on the way to the Children’s Hospital of Orange County, ahead of each chemo appointment, hoping to see Aldrete for a pep talk. Other staff at the Starbucks started giving pep talks, too, offering to fill in for Aldrete whenever he wasn’t there.
Then Aldrete and Haar exchanged numbers. Soon, Aldrete and Cole started FaceTiming and playing video games virtually.
“I decided I’m going to be a force of positivity for Cole,” Aldrete said. “I’ll be his cheerleader.”
Aldrete’s constant support has lifted Cole’s spirits as he faces both physical and emotional challenges. Cole was diagnosed with leukemia in February, and when he met Aldrete, he was at a particularly perilous point in his treatment.
“It has been a nightmare,” said Haar, explaining that his treatment will be three years or longer. “We’re in it for the long haul.”
Cole’s illness has been all-consuming for his whole family, his mother said, and has been so intense that he hasn’t been able to participate in school.
Given his depleted immune system and the risks associated with the coronavirus, “we are very isolated,” said Haar, who lives in a rural area near Temecula, Calif., with her husband and two of her four children.
Each time Cole has a chemo appointment — which is four days a week — he and his mother drive two hours to the children’s hospital in Orange County.
“I cannot even explain how awful all of this has been. But Eddie is definitely a bright spot. He is a source of happiness,” Haar said.
Aldrete, who is gay and struggled with depression during his childhood, said the challenges in his own life have enabled him to better relate to Cole.
“I tell him I don’t know how he’s feeling, but that it is okay to be upset. It’s okay not to be okay, but just keep fighting,” he said.
Despite Cole’s diagnosis and difficult path forward, he remains optimistic.
“He has a great group of people that are cheering him on. We call it ‘Cole’s Crew,’ and it’s family, friends and people we’ve met along the way during all of this,” said Haar, adding that they started an Instagram account together to chronicle Cole’s cancer journey. “Eddie is his biggest supporter.”
Cole agreed: “He’s really nice, and he helps me get through the day by motivating me,” he said.
Their bond is so strong, in fact, that Cole once excitedly exclaimed, “we should have Eddie move into our house,” Haar said.
Aldrete — who recently graduated from California State University and plans to pursue a career in photography and design — tries to speak with the Haars daily and check in with Cole as often as he can.
“It really is a friendship,” he said, adding that he sees Cole as a little brother. “Relationships can happen out of nowhere sometimes. I didn’t expect it at all.”
Aldrete’s extended family and the Haars have gotten to know each other over FaceTime, too.
When Aldrete’s father, Eddie Aldrete Sr., 51, heard Cole needed blood, he promptly booked an appointment to donate his own.
“Cancer is a terrible disease. My mom and dad both passed away from cancer; both my sisters had breast cancer. I’ve been through it, and I’ve seen family members suffer from this terrible illness,” Aldrete Sr. said. “I knew Eddie always had a big heart and cares about other people, but for him to actually take the time to help somebody he didn’t even know is awesome.”
The entire Aldrete family is now actively invested in Cole’s health and journey forward.
“We want to hear him ring the cancer survivor bell,” said Aldrete Sr., who has an appointment Friday to donate blood directly to Cole.
Haar said she is blown away by the support, which started from a spontaneous but profoundly significant gesture from a Starbucks barista — a total stranger, who rapidly became a dear friend.
“The world needs more Eddies,” said Haar.
“I don’t think I’ve done anything phenomenal,” Aldrete said. “It’s something that any human being should do. Just be kind.”