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Mom to share story of cookies, kids and cancer

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Helping kids

What: Gretchen Holt-Witt, co-founder of the Cookies for Kids' Cancer organization, will be the speaker for the Common Bond Breakfast benefiting Erin's House for Grieving Children.
When: 8 a.m. Wednesday; doors open at 7:30 a.m.
Where: Ceruti's Banquet & Event Center, 6325 Illinois Road, next to Lucky Harley-Davidson
Cost: Guests are asked to make a $75 donation to Erin's House. To register or for information, call 423-2466 or go to www.erinshouse.org.
Note: Erin's House for Grieving Children provides support for children, teens and families grieving the loss of a loved one. Programs include peer support groups for children, teens, young adults and their families; crisis response services where a death impacts a school, church or organization; six weeks of in-school programming following a crisis response; and training for volunteer facilitators for support groups, camps and events.

She founded fundraising nonprofit after young son was diagnosed

Saturday, April 13, 2013 - 12:01 am

Despite advances in research and treatment, cancer remains the No. 1 cause of death by disease among children in the United States.

That fact isn't widely known, however, because many people find it difficult to discuss the death of a child, said Gretchen Holt-Witt, co-founder of the Cookies for Kids' Cancer organization.

“It is not going to get any better unless we talk about it,” Holt-Witt noted.

She will share her story during the Common Bond Breakfast at 8 a.m. Wednesday at Ceruti's Banquet & Event Center at Interstate 69 and Illinois Road. Event proceeds will support programs and day-to-day operations at Erin's House for Grieving Children, a local nonprofit offering grief support.

Holt-Witt's life changed in late 2007, when she and her husband, Larry, learned their 2 1/2 -year-old son, Liam, had cancer.

It was around the holidays, and she decided to organize a big bake sale to raise money to fight kids' cancer, she said in a phone interview from her home in Califon, N.J.

She, friends and volunteers helped bake 96,000 cookies, and parents of other children with cancer started taking cookie orders from family, friends, neighbors and others, it says on the Cookies for Kids' Cancer website, www.cookiesforkidscancer.org. The sale raised more than $400,000 for pediatric cancer research.

That experience and the media coverage it generated resulted in a lot of additional requests for cookies and more people offering to help, the website says. Holt-Witt and her husband decided in September 2008 to continue effort by founding Cookies for Kids' Cancer, a nonprofit dedicated to raising money to support research to find new and improved treatments for pediatric cancer.

In addition to raising funds through cookie sales, walk/runs, bike-a-thons and other fundraisers, volunteers organizing the events also create awareness about the need for better treatments for childhood cancer, she said.

Holt-Witt's story grabbed Jennifer Spoelhof of Fort Wayne, who read about Cookies for Kids' Cancer in a magazine shortly after her son, Henri, had completed cancer treatment. He had been diagnosed one week before his 7th birthday.

“You feel so helpless as a parent,” Spoelhof said of having a child with cancer. “There are so many things out of your control.”

Holding a fundraising bake sale for Cookies for Kids' Cancer was something positive she could do to help.

“This is why this research is so critical,” she said. “It is a matter of a life-or-death difference for children diagnosed with cancer.”

With the help of friend Marcia Wright and friends and volunteers at Beacon Heights Church of the Brethren, where they attend, Spoelhof and Wright organized a bake sale March 17, 2012, selling 95 dozen cookies and raising $1,500 for Cookies for Kids' Cancer.

Spoelhof and Wright plan to attend the Common Bond Breakfast to hear Holt-Witt and to learn more about Erin's House.

Any amount of money helps, and all of it is needed, Holt-Witt said.

Some people have been lulled into complacency because the overall survival rate for child cancer patients now is 75 percent to 80 percent, she said. That figure obscures the fact the survival rates for some types of childhood cancer remain extremely low or have not shown any improvement in decades.

Holt-Witt is proud Cookies for Kids' Cancer has issued nearly $4 million in grants since its founding to fund more than two dozen pediatric cancer research projects. A few of the projects already have resulted in new treatments, she said.

Cookies for Kids' Cancer grants also make it possible for more children to receive cutting-edge treatment in Phase I clinical trials at regional locations, such as Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, Holt-Witt said.

The enthusiasm and fundraising success of “Good Cookies” who organize events — more than 4,500 events so far in all 50 U.S. states and in 13 countries — inspire her and help her with the grief from the loss of her son, who died in January 2011.

“Ultimately, I know my son is looking down on us,” she said. “I know the first question he will ask when we meet again is, 'Mommy, Daddy, did you make it better for others?'”

She intends to make sure they can answer, “Yes.”