Family's foundation helps others facing cancer
MOORESVILLE - When Heather Smith realized Presbyterian Hemby Children's Hospital had run out of the colorful and character-themed bandages that typically bring a smile to children's faces she knew she had to do something.
"We were sitting in the room and I overhead a little girl say 'What do you mean you don't have a glitter Band-Aid?" she said. "That is the only choice they have when they walk in that hospital door."
Smith said after talking to the nurse she realized the hospital had been out of the bandages since June.
She knows what something small like a bright bandage can mean to a sick child.
Smith's son, Bryson, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at the age of 4 on June 1, 2011.
Three days later, Smith and her husband, Jim, decided to start a nonprofit organization called Bryson's FUEL. FUEL stands for families united to eliminate leukemia.
"No one deserves this life and to go through your child having cancer," she said. "We wanted to help families because no one knows what you are going through with keeping up with medications and trying to continue to live."
Bryson's FUEL doesn't do cancer research or pay hospital bills, but Smith they do provide families with gas cards, meal tickets, money for a family days out and other treats.
"When Bryson was diagnosed they told us the we could forget the life we used to have," she said. "They said one of you need to quit your job, make sure your other children are aware that you're homebound because something like chicken pox will kill your child, this will destroy your finances, you will probably lose your home …
"All this the same day you find out your child is sick, it's scary and we never want a family to feel like that."
The small necessities the foundation provides allow families to feel a sense of normalcy.
"Parents have to have their copays so maybe we can give them a gift card, so they don't have to tell their kids they can't go out to eat because they have to pay a hospital bill," Smith said.
During the family's first stint in the hospital, Smith also noticed a lack of some modern conveniences, like children's toothpaste and adult shampoo.
"We had no idea we were going to be there for 15 days, so we had absolutely nothing with us," she said.
That's why the foundation is providing care packages that include a washcloth, shampoo, hairbrush, toothpaste, toothbrush, contact solution. It also donates cell phone chargers, snacks, coffee brewed by a Keurig, laptops for older children to use to keep in contact with friends and toys for children receiving treatment.
The foundation is currently working with Hemby in Charlotte, Brenner Children's Hospital in Winston-Salem and Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Kansas City, Mo.
"We try to reach smaller hospitals that don't have the funds," Smith said.
Smith decided it was time to get Bryson involved when she heard about the idea for a bandage drive.
"We wanted to find something that kids alone could do and other kids could participate in," she said. "Our goal was to collect 2,000 Band-Aids per hospital."
Smith said they've already surpassed that goal, collecting a variety of bandages with themes like the Cars movie, Hello Kitty, The Muppets, Barbie and Mickey Mouse.
"My whole staircase is full of boxes of Band-Aids," she said. "There are just boxes and boxes of Band-Aids."
Mt. Ulla Elementary School will host a Community Day from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, inviting people to donate bandages or toiletries and learn more about leukemia.
"I know this seems small but this family is helping hospitals across the country and I know they could use some help," Jennifer Barton, president of Mt. Ulla's Parent-Teacher Association, said.
Barton said the school has already received $200 in donations for Bryson's FUEL and fifth-grade teacher Danielle Webb's class has pledged to collect 2,000 Band-Aids.
"I think it's amazing that kids have been saving their own money to buy Band-Aids," she said.
Smith said Saturday's event will include a car show, since that's how the family makes their living. They own Street Customs & Restoration in Mooresville.
"People can bring Band-Aids to enter their car in the show," she said.
Bryson will be there in a special car built on an episode of the Speed TV show Car Warriors, a competition show that requires teams to customize a car within 72 hours.
Jim Smith appeared on the show, along with several other locals to build the car to raise awareness of childhood cancer.
Bryson's heavy chemotherapy is behind him, but he continues to receive maintenance treatments every week.
For more information about Bryson's FUEL visit www.brysonsfuel.org or search Bryson's FUEL on Facebook.
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.