Easing the Struggles of Childhood Cancer
The nonprofit Strut For Kids lends monetary and emotional support to childhood cancer patients and their families.
Strut for Kids knows that the journey to beat cancer is a marathon, not a sprint. But the nonprofit movement is more than just the flagship fundraising 5K race they host each year.
It’s a powerful support team that lifts up families to keep them moving with financial assistance, hope and love, when cancer puts a halt to their lives. Because even during a pandemic that stops nearly all moving parts around the world, cancer continues to be invasive.
“Childhood cancer doesn’t stop for pandemics and neither will we,” says Amy Bedingfield, president of the Strut for Kids board of directors. “It’s been such an honor, honestly, just to be a part of this organization and how it’s grown so much. We’re essentially a startup of entrepreneurs kind of building the plane in the sky to make this something that is valuable and helpful to families in the area — and we’re constantly trying to understand what the needs are.”
The Strut for Kids nonprofit was founded in 2016 by a group of women inspired to help Owen Preston, a local boy diagnosed with childhood cancer, and his family struggling to battle cancer with him, plus pay the hospital bills. Sadly, Owen passed away April 29, 2017, after a hard-fought, 16-month battle, but his memory lives on through one of the three main Strut for Kids’ fundraising events: Owen Preston Bingo Night.
Today Strut for Kids still stands strong as Wilmington’s only nonprofit that’s solely dedicated to supporting local children and their families in New Hanover, Pender and Brunswick counties on the pediatric cancer journey, from the time of diagnosis to treatment and beyond.
The all-volunteer group is comprised of seven board members and hundreds of other volunteers. Bedingfield, formerly a critical care nurse, has a background involvement in childhood cancer organizations in her home state of Alabama. She joined Strut for Kids as a board member in 2017 and was slated as board president in 2019. While Strut for Kids is her passion, her day job is working in healthcare technology, specifically population health.
“When I first moved to North Carolina around 2015, I wanted to plug into a local organization that was similar here and there wasn’t one, which was a disappointment,” she says. “Ironically, unbeknownst to me, it was around this time that Strut for Kids was forming.”
The organization was able to squeak in its 11th annual Cardinal Strut 5K Run and Walk at the end of February (before the coronarvirus pandemic put an end to event gatherings) to benefit Greater Wilmington area families dealing with pediatric cancer diagnoses. The fate of the other two fundraisers — Owen Preston Bingo Night and the St. James Tennis Fundraiser, which each raise thousands of dollars for Strut for Kids — is undecided at this point because of the pandemic.
“Our purpose is to make sure we have funds available so that we can serve our families,” Bedingfield says. “Our need during this pandemic has gone up probably threefold.”
Their core need is financial assistance, which Strut for Kids provides by way of paying for transportation to hospitals, rent/mortgage, utilities, gas, groceries and more.
“Last year, we had 14 Hope Fund applications,” she says, “and in the last six weeks we had 19. … In the past three years, we’ve helped almost 40 families through this childhood cancer journey, with about 15 kids that are on active treatment at any given time in this area.”
Strut for Kids has distributed more than $50,000 directly to local families with a child battling cancer.
“When you look at our service area, we’re local serving local,” she adds. “Our goal is that we want to serve every family that is touched by this disease.”
Bedingfield explains one way Strut for Kids steps in to help. No child can get chemotherapy or radiation in Wilmington, and the closest treatment is UNC in Chapel Hill or Duke in Durham, a round trip of five to six hours. In general, many of the families travel anywhere from once a month to even weekly to UNC Chapel Hill or Duke.
“Sometimes chemotherapy is ‘count dependent,’ meaning if the child’s blood counts aren’t within the right limits, they cannot get their chemo,” Bedingfield explains. “If this had to be done in Chapel Hill or Durham, that child could possibly not quality for chemo that day and they would have to make the 2.5 to 3 hour trip right back home. Strut for Kids ensures that families know about the ability to get labs locally with the NHRMC pediatric infusion program, which can save them this 5 to 6 hour round-trip unnecessarily.”
Often the visits require an overnight stay because of back-to-back appointments or an early morning sedation appointment. Before COVID-19, the family would stay at the Ronald McDonald House, but due to closures during the pandemic, Strut for Kids helped families by booking and paying for hotel stays.
“That’s been a blessing to the families to have that one less thing to worry about and take off their shoulders,” she says. “We want to offer support in a way that’s meaningful to that particular family, and understand and learn who they are.”
As Bedingfield explains, once cancer becomes a part of each family’s world, things will never be the same. Love and support are needed to prevent that sense of isolation and feeling alone that are also symptoms of cancer.
“The main question should be, ‘How am I going to save my child’s life?’ not, ‘How am I going to pay my mortgage next month?’” Bedingfield says. “That’s where we step in, and we can help families transition to the new normal, which is, ironically, a phrase that the average American would have never heard until six weeks ago.”
Right now, Bedingfield reports that the board is in the middle of strategic planning for the remaining events that are usually held during the year, i.e., whether or not venues will be available to rent and what social distancing restrictions will look like in the future. She also affirms that Strut for Kids isn’t just about writing checks for families, but also actively checking in on them to provide hope. At-home visits and their collaboration with support groups, like Wilmington Childhood Cancer Collaborative and Wilmington Childhood Cancer Support Group, has had to be replaced by FaceTime and Zoom calls.
“We are missing our families so much!” she says.
Bedingfield says that continued funding for their programs that directly aid these families is needed now more than ever.
“This is our passion. This is why we do what we do,” she says. “And we want to bring awareness to childhood cancer and Strut for Kids. Our community has given us some really incredible feedback … these dollars go directly back into the Cape Fear community and to families in our area, and a lot of people really appreciate that. So, we appreciate this opportunity to share our platform because it’s very critical to our mission.”
Can you help?
For more information on Strut for Kids, to donate or to volunteer, visit strutforkids.org.