For the seventh year, Chef Todd Johnson, one of the owners of Rumrunners, The Joint and RunAgrounds, recently opened his kitchens at The Joint and RunAgrounds early on a Saturday morning to cook with kids suffering with cancer from the Golisano Children's Hospital.
This event is much anticipated by the kids, their families and the staff of the restaurant and the Golisano Children's Hospital as one of the highlights of their year.
Children with cancer grow up too soon and live with needles, doctor visits and concerned family and friends and this event gives them a chance to be free of all of that and just have fun making their favorite foods - pizza and ice cream. It is hard to tell if Chef Todd or the kids are having the most fun from the smiles on their faces.
A large group of kids came this year, including several "veterans." Avery McCaskill came with her sister, Kaleah and mom Sondra and her cousin Shania Mansfield. Back for the second time were James Dodge and his brother Jarrod, with parents Jeff and Jess. Returning for his fourth year was Ben Nordstrom with his parents Jim and Dawn. Ben was the honorary chef at last year's Celebrity Chef, donning a chef's coat that Chef Todd has made especially for him and standing with Chef at the Rumrunner's table helping to plate and serve and even took a part in the auction, bidding on special blankets to keep sick children warm to co-hosting with Kelly Burns Garvey in telling people how important the blankets are to the kids, causing the bidding to double and triple. Coming for the first time was Kiki Felix, with her family members, mom Danielle, and siblings, Tipei and Saramei.
The morning started with Chef Todd giving each child a "professional" apron as they head into the pizza kitchen. From mixer to tossing, the children each get to make a pizza to their exact tastes, putting any ingredients on that they wish. Chef Todd uses his pizza paddle to put into the oven and the kids got to watch them cook. Out to the dining room the kids went to enjoy a pizza with their family and friends. For dessert, Chef Todd and his line of chef ducklings walk over to RunAgrounds, where they got to make their choice of gelato flavor in the big gelato machine. Each child got a chance to work the machine with the high point being eating their gelatos with any topping they wanted.
Kiki Felix has been battling acute lymphoblastic anemia since Dec. 20, 2010 and is currently on maintenance until February 2014, when she will be done. Mom, Danielle, proudly states, "We are so blessed that Kiki has handled everything like a champ. My son taught me courage and faith in the way he has handled the disease and treatment."
Jarrod Dodge has been on maintenance after completing chemotherapy for Leukemia TALL type T. He is looking forward to finishing up in December 2014. Parents Jeff and Jess say "This interview isn't long enough to talk about how wonderful the hospital has been to us. We love the nurses and staff at the hospital who always make us feel comfortable and make sure that Jarrod has fun and they try to get us home as soon as possible. "
Little Avery McCaskill was just diagnosed in February of this year with Leukemia ALL. Currently in treatment, mom Sondra said "We were concerned that we would have to move from Naples to Tampa or Miami for treatment and found out that Avery could be treated at Golisano Children's Hospital and we would not have to uproot our entire family. When we got to the hospital and met the doctors and staff, we knew that we were where we needed to be. We are so lucky - I brag to everyone about the care and staff at Golisano Children's Hospital. I was introduced to Mindy and Cali Russell from Cape Coral, who has been a patient and was the Golisano Hospital Child of Hope. We discovered many tips and help from the Russell family who shared their experiences and helped us through ours - they understand what it is to talk about pain, having to make choices, fear of losing your job because you have to take so much time off to take your child for treatment. For instance, when the children get chemo. they have to have a port installed in their chest. With all the new people and prodding and poking, it made Avery feel vulnerable to always have to take her clothes off to get treatment. Mindy had come up with some dresses that allowed access to the port and allowed Cali to remain dressed and gave them all to us to use so that it would make Avery feel better. It has been very rough, especially with such a young child, but the hospital and fellow parents have made the journey so much easier."
There is an incredible camaraderie and bonding between the families. Ben and
Jarrod happen to be in the same third grade class and were friends in Punta Gorda. All the children who have been under treatment greet their fellow friends with cancer with hugs and laughter and many visit each other at the hospital while getting treatment. A practice at the hospital, if requested, is to have a staff member go to the child's class and explain what is going on so that the child feels at ease in their normal environment and not having to explain the loss of hair and frequent absences for treatment.
When asked how they found out, the parents were unanimous in their response: Follow your gut. You know when something is wrong with your child. If you don't get answers that satisfy you, keep asking. Simple things like tiredness and bruising are sometimes thought to be common for young children but a parent usually has a gut feeling that something is unusual or not right and keep asking. The biggest obstacle many parents have is fear of losing the jobs that support the family and keep the health insurance. Employers may not be understanding about the time off needed to take a child to treatment and the added fear of job loss is a horrible thing for a parent of a young child to have to deal with in addition to the stress of the illness.
Chef Todd has been doing the Rumrunner's Celebrity Chef Auction for ten years. While doing the fundraiser makes a difference, he felt it means so much more to be able to see the children who are benefiting from the fundraising. Remembering how much he enjoyed cooking as a child, his first job at Pizza Hut at age 15 exposed him to a Pizza Hut manager who had children in to cook and he saw how much it affected the kids and how much fun they had. That has always stayed in his mind and seven years ago; he decided to do the Cooking with Todd to bring children in from the hospital to make pizza and gelato.
"It is wonderful to be a part of this wonderful organization and to do my part to contribute," Chef Todd said. "The original timing was perfect. My partner at the restaurant was battling cancer. Frank Haskell (founder of Barbara's Friends) came into the restaurant and asked me if I wanted to do a fundraiser for children fighting cancer. Remembering my experience at Pizza Hut at fifteen, it was a wonderful opportunity to be in a position where I could do the same now. I can't put into words how much the experience of cooking with the kids has meant to me and is a nice precursor to the fundraiser. With many organizations, you don't actually get to see where the money is going, but when you see children like Ben coming back for the seventh year to cook and get to see their progress, it is so rewarding to me and my staff."
Childhood cancer treatment has had an amazing increase in successful treatment.
In 1960, the majority of children diagnosed with leukemia died within two months. With the aggressive and specific treatment designed for children, there is now a 92 percent success rate and with a five-year post treatment clean bill of health, a child is considered cured. Children are treated much more aggressively than adults, but recover much quicker from chemotherapy than adults do.
Headed up by Emad Salman, Medical Director, Golisano Children's Hospital of Southwest Florida, there is a large team of dedicated doctors, nurses, child care specialists and psychologists whose dedication and love of their patients shows in everything they do. They become an extended part of the children's family, anticipate and provide the support that the families need.
B. Thomas Golisano gave the hospital a gift of $20 million dollars if it could be matched by the community in order to build the new hospital which will allow for expanded treatment and the overflow of patients that are currently having to be treated in Tampa or Miami - an added strain that the patients and family will no longer face.
The community support will bring this dream to fruition and the benefit is that we, the community, built this hospital as a result of this generous gift.