By Terrance Turner
It’s May 11. You walk into the Post Oak Hotel for the “Still Strong is Going Sky High Gala”. Inside the elegant five-star hotel, you see guests in black-tie attire mingled over mixed drinks and glasses of wine. But you quickly realize that behind the classy decor and upper-class shine lies a dark reality. Each year in the United States, 15,780 children under the age of 19 will be diagnosed with cancer.
The event was a partnership between Sky High for Kids and the Still Strong Foundation. Sky High, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, was founded by Abbeville, Louisiana native Brittany Hebert in 2007. The foundation aims to fund research and provide support to young patients and their families, with the goal of ending pediatric cancer.
The Still Strong Foundation, founded by former NFL player Devon Still and his daughter Leah in 2015, helps parents with non-medical bills like mortgages and utilities so that they can focus on supporting their ailing children. Mr. Still was inspired to create the charity after Leah’s battle with neuroblastoma (a rare cancer that primarily affects infants and young children).
In a joint interview, Still and Hebert explained why they established their organizations. Hebert said that volunteering at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital when she was 14 changed her life. “I met a child that was very sick, and we shared dinner together,” Hebert remembered. “God really just put that in my life, and so later on in college I started a sporting play tournament to benefit St. Jude. And 12 years later, we’re raising millions of dollars to really impact research and hopefully move survival rate needles forward, both at St. Jude and Texas Children’s Cancer Center.”
In late 2014, Still’s daughter Leah was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma (a form of cancer that typically affects young children). She was given a 50/50 chance of survival. During Leah’s two-year treatment, her father saw children fighting cancer in the hospital alone because their parents had to work. He remembered seeing a young girl in the hospital by herself and learning that the girl’s mother, a single parent, had left to go to work. “So she was always in the hospital fighting by herself,” he said. “I knew right then and there that we need to start a foundation where we pay the household bills of families, so we can keep families in the hospital fighting together.”
Despite his financial security, Still also had to leave for work while he played for the Bengals. “I had to make a decision to leave my daughter’s bedside to go to work so that I had the health insurance to pay for her treatment — which is something that a lot of families have to do,” he said. “I knew what that did to me mentally, and I didn’t want any other family to have to make that same decision.”
Thankfully, Leah is now in remission and recently turned nine. Her father, now retired, remains committed to raising awareness for pediatric cancer.
The Still Strong Foundation, according to the event booklet, supports families at four hospitals. They are the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, St. Christopher’s Hospital (also in Philadelphia), Nemours Alfred I. DuPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, DE and Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, TX.
The event began on a light-hearted note. Still and Hebert hosted a Q&A with the players and patients about subjects including their favorite foods and sneaker collections. But the vibe shifted with the screening of a promotional video featuring Sky High’s union with corporate partner Crestwood Equity. A woman interviewed in the video talked about her son — a pint-size patient with a pacifier in his mouth. It was a sobering reminder that cancer can strike anyone of any age.
The mood turned even darker with a video about patient Giavanna Gardella, a teenage patient. In the clip, Gia spoke of her diagnosis and treatment for lymphoma. Allergic reactions during the third round of chemotherapy had threatened her life, but doctors and nurses at Texas Children’s Hospital helped stabilize her. After completing her sixth round of chemo, she seemed headed for remission — until she began experiencing fever and back pain.
Two days after Thanksgiving, Gia was back in the hospital, where she ended up staying for a month. Her doctor informed her that she’d suffered a relapse. In a personal essay posted on the Sky High website, Gia wrote: “I promised to myself that during my second fight I would be upbeat and positive throughout because happiness is the best medicine.”
After the video concluded, Still and Hebert walked onstage. Hebert, in tears, informed the crowd that Gia had lost her battle with cancer at approximately 6:37 pm — less than an hour before the program began. Hebert wept openly as she prepared the crowd for a photo of Gia in her last days, as requested by Gia’s father. The photograph depicted the girl lying in bed, her jaundiced skin an alarming blend of yellow and orange. It was a stark picture of the brutal reality that confronts cancer patients and their families.
By now, Still himself was weeping. He wasn’t alone: other attendees (including the author) were also in tears. A live auction began around 8:00 pm. Items included artwork painted by patients at Texas Children’s Hospital Cancer and Hematology Center. The auctioneer, former Dallas Cowboy Beasley Reece, worked gamely to cheer up the crowd. But sadness pervaded the room.
The cloud finally began to lift when Texans players started tossing autographed footballs to the highest bidders. In a crowd-pleasing bit, Jon Weeks bent over in front of the crowd and snapped a football the way he does on the field. The crowd looked across the room to see if the bidder would make the catch — then laughed and applauded when she did.
By 9 pm, DJ Senega was playing feel-good dance jams, and most of the crowd had migrated onto the dance floor. Though the vibe was now celebratory, the loss of Gia cast a shadow over the proceedings. The gala begun as an enjoyable night out; now, it was shrouded in darkness.
Taylor Sass had a similar experience at her first event: “Seven, going on eight, years ago I had some friends who had heard about it, one of Sky High’s events. And they said, ‘Would you like to go?’ and I said ‘Sure’ — just as a social event, which is what I thought it was going to be. And as soon as I got there,” she says, “I met a family and realized: this is way bigger than a happy hour or a dinner or entertainment. This is very serious, and I don’t think enough people realize how many children and how many families are affected by this situation.”
The needs of the patients and their families now emerged with sharp clarity. But awareness of those needs is merely the first step. “I think awareness is very important,” Still said, “but we need to take action with that awareness. It’s one thing to let people know about what the families are going through and it’s another thing to get people to step up and support them. You see all of the people that are in the room tonight; they understand the mission that we both have in our organization, and they’re here to support it. So, we just want this to be a night where we support the families, let them know that they are not alone in their battles and that we’re here, fighting for them.”
“I’m going to have to say ditto to that,” Hebert said. “I mean, we want people to gravitate and to join and to do something. My big thing is: put your passion into action. And so, we hope to inspire people to be passionate about ending childhood cancer, and we can’t do it alone.” (You can learn more information — and donate — at skyhighforkids.org and stillstrongfoundation.org.)
Hebert wanted families to know “that they’re not in the corner by themselves, that there are people fighting for them each and every day, people that were either directly affected or not. And so they’re not alone, and we’re going to be with them every step of the way.”
Still echoed that sentiment. “I can’t say it any better,” he said, adding that “we do these type of events to let families know that they are not isolated, and they’re not fighting this disease alone and that it’s going to be a team effort — and we’re part of their team.”