When Debbie Haar pulled up to a Starbucks drive-through in Lake Elsinore, Calif., recently, it was a difficult day. Her 9-year-old son, Cole, was in the backseat, and they were on their way to his chemotherapy treatment.

As Haar reached out of 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 backseat 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.”

Cole, from the back seat of his mother's car, where he often chats with Aldrete before chemo, with his new dog, Willow.
Debbie Haar
Cole, from the back seat of his mother's car, where he often chats with Aldrete before chemo, with his new dog, Willow.

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 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.

Cole met Aldrete at a particularly difficult point in his treatment, and the pep talks have helped lift his spirits.
Debbie Haar
Cole met Aldrete at a particularly difficult point in his treatment, and the pep talks have helped lift his spirits.

“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.

Cole in February, when he was diagnosed with leukemia. He now undergoes chemotherapy four days a week.
Debbie Haar
Cole in February, when he was diagnosed with leukemia. He now undergoes chemotherapy four days a week.

“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 recently graduated from California State University and plans to pursue a career in photography and design — tries to speak with the Haars daily and checks in with Cole often.

“It really is a friendship,” said Aldrete, who sees Cole as a little brother. “Relationships can happen out of nowhere sometimes.”

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 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.

Haar said she is blown away by the support, which started from a spontaneous but profoundly significant gesture from a Starbucks barista.

“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.”