By AMANDA BEAM
STARLIGHT — Joy can always be found, even in tragic events. Just ask 1987 Providence grads Chuck Grantz and Jody Proctor. Five years ago, they joined with other friends to bring back an event that honored their high school classmate Todd Denison. In 1992, Denison died from Leukemia at the age of 22.
On March 9, laughter replaced the grief and suffering caused by cancer as golfers attempted to putt balls into self-made holes at Joe Huber Family Farm. In its fifth year, the Chili Bowl doesn’t raise money for a national organization or a memorial fund. Instead, organizers have created the annual miniature golf and chili cook-off to benefit people struggling with tough situations.
“Why do we have to remember people when they’re gone? It’s about remembering people while they are here. Let’s change their life while they are here,” Grantz said. “We’re remembering those people and doing what’s best for them.”
Things unfortunately don’t go always as planned when cancer is involved. Fighting their own battles with the disease, New Albany resident Nancy Kerstiens and 6-year-old Kaden Book were chosen as the recipients of this year’s funds. Only Nancy attended the night’s festivities. Thirteen days prior to the benefit, Kaden lost his young life to leukemia.
Diagnosed in November 2011, Kaden’s spirits remained high during his battle with the illness. Despite the sickness, he continued to be a kid, running around and adoring things in nature like tractors, farms and animals. But before all of his other likes, his aunt Becky Book said he loved God first and foremost. In the hospitals, he would tell the gospel to other children afflicted with terminal diseases.
“Kaden was an inspiration in true faith in God. He really believed. And I think his legacy was to show others the path to faith,” Becky said.
Still grieving from their loss, Kaden’s grandfather Bill Book Jr. and Aunt Jean Book also remembered the boy from Borden’s wide smile, even in the face of adversity. Instead of focusing on his own pain, he comforted others, including his mother and father, Halie and Kevin Book.
“He was never about Kaden. He was always worried about mommy and daddy and how they were feeling, and everybody else,” Jean said. “Even the day before he passed, we have a picture of him. He had that big old smile. He had that smile through the whole thing.”
With his body not responding to traditional chemotherapy treatments, Kaden was one of the first patients in the nation to undergo an experimental antibody therapy. For a while, it worked. Cancer free, he was able to return home, a prayer answered for the family.
But toward the end of February, the cancer returned and consumed his body within a week. He died Feb. 25 at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
“His last words are what I’ll remember. He was laying there and he had an oxygen mask on,” Bill said. “My son told me he looked at his mommy and said, ‘Mommy, I see people. I see Jesus playing with all the children in heaven. I’m ready to go to heaven now.’ He took three deep breaths and he was gone.”
Although Kaden has left this earth, medical and other bills remain for the Book family. Contributions from the Chili Bowl will help alleviate some of them. Others who wish to donate to the Books may do so through a Kevin Book: Help Kaden Book account at any Your Community Bank.
Loss has become an accepted part of the fundraising event. Several years before, Jason Applegate lost his wife Andrea to Burkitt’s-like lymphoma four months before the Chili Bowl. Money raised went to her beloved niece for a scholarship fund. Likewise, the guys hoped to help Todd Denison’s father Larry this year, but Larry passed in November from the same disease that had killed his son.
Even those who benefit from the money do not always live long enough to see its legacy continue. Last year’s recipient, Floyd Knobs resident Justin Wade, died from a brain tumor seven months after being honored at the cook-off. Almost $50,000 had been raised at the 2012 Chili Bowl, its biggest year to date.
Justin had struggled with cancer for more than 20 years. He survived a rare bone carcinoma as a teenager. Living his life to the fullest, Justin married his wife Sally and had two children. Shortly after the birth of his youngest, the disease returned and a year later claimed his life.
“When he was first diagnosed at 17, he had a 5 percent chance. In Justin’s terms, he would always say he was living on borrowed time. The fact is he got another 20 years and he got to get married and had kids,” Sally said. “Even in the end, he said, ‘I’m going to face this like I’ve faced everything else.’ He was very, very brave.”
Able to spend time with Justin before his passing, Sally credited the money raised by the Chili Bowl for making those final days easier. Justin didn’t need to worry as much about his fledgling family, she said, a gift that provided him with relief as he bravely decided to stop treatments. He would face death without the effects of chemo or other debilitating treatments.
“[The donations] allowed us to just breathe and not worry about what was going to come afterward. We could just take a step back and say, ‘We are going to be OK.’ It gave Justin peace of mind,” Sally said. “He wouldn’t have been such at ease with his decision if he had thought that he was leaving us with a huge financial burden.”
Not every story at the Chili Bowl has a sad ending. Nancy, this year’s other recipient, and her doctors have managed to stabilize the spread of her cancer. Diagnosed and treated for a breast tumor in 2002, the disease returned in a new form six years later. Malignant cells have spread through almost her entire body, yet she perseveres.
“I have terminal cancer so I will either die with it or die from it. But it’s going to be with me,” Nancy said. “The only thing I can say is just stay positive.”
Money raised from the event will most likely go toward a family vacation so she can spend time with her husband and two school-aged daughters. But the fundraiser also has allowed her to emotionally open up to her friends and loved ones and let some of her deeper thoughts be known.
“You never, ever know what’s coming around the corner. There might be some new medical drug that can prolong your life a little bit longer,” Nancy said. “And if not, you just have to make a list of what you want to do, what you want to accomplish.”
Even with these and other obstacles placed in front of her, Nancy continues to not let cancer rule her life.
“Everyone has their own struggles,” Nancy added. “They all have their own tragedies. Mine just happens to be this.”