By Erika Webb
Don Hill did not retreat into self-pity when cancer intruded on his family.
When he accompanied his wife Sandra to her treatments for breast cancer, Mr. Hill took a look around. He found perhaps the most heart wrenching segment of the cancer-afflicted population -- children. Mr. Hill listened to helplessly despairing parents and he got to work creating hope in Volusia County.
As the executive director for the Childhood Cancer Foundation prepares to turn over the reins to former Mainstreet DeLand director Jack Becker, he can leave his post on a high note.
Last year CCF raised more money than it has in its 10-year history -- just more than $91,000 and more than double the amount collected in 2012.
In the first quarter of 2014, more than $11,000 was given to Volusia County families with children battling cancer.
CCF Vice President Donna Higbee, who works at Merrill Lynch in DeLand, said community organizations and national corporations have been invaluable to the cause.
Locally Junior Service League, Faith Hope and Charity, Mystic Krewe of Maravedi and the West Volusia Chamber of Commerce all have given grants and hosted fundraising events.
TJ Maxx and Marshalls are faithful supporters as well, providing grants and hosting shopping sprees.
"We have a big event in November," Ms. Higbee said. "We work with Marshalls; they open the store early for families and we give (families) $200 to go Christmas shopping."
Last weekend, the chamber's annual poker run raised $4,500 for CCF.
"The West Volusia Chamber of Commerce is a huge supporter of us," Ms. Higbee said. "They're phenomenal."
"And the Daytona Beach Track Club does a 5k every December, the Holiday Classic," she added. "We are very, very lucky that organizations support us."
When Ms. Higbee joined CCF in 2008, she discovered there was no help with the day-in and day-out expenses of people whose children were suffering.
"Most organizations create awareness and raise money for research, but at that time, when none helped with expenses, there were an exorbitant number of families in need," Ms. Higbee said. "The biggest expense at that time was getting to Arnold Palmer Children's Hospital, commuting from Daytona to Orlando on a daily basis for a single-income family was very costly."
The Orlando hospitals that treat children with cancer are a 25 to 65 mile drive away from home for Volusia residents, depending upon their residential location.
CCF helps pay electric bills and rent, buys groceries, clothes, shoes and gas cards. It also contributes to lodging at Ronald McDonald House.
"We pay for car repairs or help find transportation," Ms. Higbee said. "We buy birthday, Christmas and end-of-treatment gifts. We put on fashion shows -- not just to raise money -- but to give the children suffering something fun and positive to focus on."
And when the scenario is worst case, CCF helps with funeral expenses.
"Most of our families are single-parent families," Ms. Higbee explained. "When a single parent loses a job because they are dealing with treatment and everything else, it snowballs."
Families with a cancer-diagnosed child 19 or younger, living in Volusia County, are eligible for the automatic $2,000 allotment, she said, noting that when that money runs out, Mr. Hill approaches the board seeking more.
"Don spends quite a bit of time with the families at the hospitals, but our financial support stays within Volusia," Ms. Higbee said.
DeLand resident Wilma Martin and her family know all too well how much time and energy Mr. Hill devotes to suffering families.
Mrs. Martin's granddaughter Mikayla Robinson lost her battle with Wilms' tumor, a type of kidney cancer that occurs in children at the age of five.
Mikayla's grandmother and parents, Mike and Tracy Robinson, as well as the rest of the family will never forget the help they received from CCF.
"It wasn't just every now and then," Mrs. Martin said. "Don Hill, he was a godsend ... not only with financial support but with prayer support. He does it for everyone, not just for us."
She said CCF volunteers stood by the family's side at the hospital, offering comfort and compassion.
Today Gateway Bank in Daytona Beach where Mrs. Martin works is a supporter of the organization.
The annual gala in October is a huge event, which brings CCF the bulk of its funds to distribute throughout the year. Typically, Ms. Higbee said, it just covers expenses, but last year with its debut at a new venue, the Ocean Center, enough money was raised to create a surplus.
One of CCF's original members, DeLand Realtor Terry Bailey, took over the gala preparations and came up with the idea to change the location.
"It doubled what they've done before," Ms. Higbee said.
"Normally 35 to 40 is the average number of children we're helping," said CCF Treasurer Susan Woosley. "Thankfully we have money in reserve so we can help more children."
Mr. Becker has been a board member for seven years and is past president of the organization.
"What better cause is there than helping families of kids with cancer?" Mr. Becker said. "Kids shouldn't get cancer."
Surprised when the board asked him to take over as executive director starting May 1, his answer was "absolutely!"
"My background is branding and I want to brand and create more awareness and activity on the east side of the county," he said. "So many kids we serve are from Ormond, Daytona, Edgewater and New Smyrna Beach."
Ms. Higbee said Mr. Becker "just seemed like the perfect fit".
They're already thinking along similar lines. Ms. Higbee would like CCF to create a fundraiser on the east side of the county in September, Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.
"There's no event in the month of September," Ms. Higbee said. "Everybody knows breast cancer (Awareness Month) is October but nobody knows about September."
Desi Garrison's family knows, though.
She had just turned five when was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia in September.
Her mom, Leslie Garrison, said the most intensive part of the two and a half year treatment protocol will end in June. But for now they travel from their home in Port Orange to Arnold Palmer Children's Hospital in Orlando weekly for chemotherapy, and sometimes more frequently for the unexpected.
"We were just admitted for five days last week," Mrs. Garrison said. "Desi was dehydrated and had mouth sores from one of the chemo medicines."
The little girl also has been hospitalized multiple times for blood and platelet transfusions.
"Unfortunately the reality is it doesn't always go as planned," Mrs. Garrison said.
Although her employer allows her to work when she can, she said it's "hit or miss" and that has a significant financial impact.
The parent of another afflicted child, who has since completed treatment, told Mrs. Garrison about Mr. Hill and CCF.
"Immediately after we were diagnosed and after our first hospital stay, Don came to the house," Mrs. Garrison said. "They've helped with grocery gift cards and gas cards for our commutes back and forth. They have assisted us with out-of-pocket bills, deductibles and co-pays that just aren't covered, and they stay in touch ... driving to the clinic and sending emails to check on us. It's a huge help."
For more information about CCF or to volunteer, call (386) 747-3962 or visit childhoodcancerfoundationinc.org.