Family's 'crusade' helps others coping with childhood cancer

Family's 'crusade' helps others coping with childhood cancer

Cory's parents Teresa and Jim Gaudet stand in their son's old bedroom. (Valley Breeze photo by SANDY PHANEUF)
5K raises $44,000 in Cory's memory

BLACKSTONE - Photo collages, smiley faces and sports memorabilia adorn nearly every inch of the walls in the room that once belonged to Blackstone Millville Regional High School student Cory Gaudet.

Gaudet, a beloved son, brother and friend to many, died last August from a rare form of brain cancer.

And while friends and family continue to mourn his loss, a glance at his old bedroom makes two things clear: Gaudet lived life to the fullest for his brief 18 years, and his memory continues to serve as inspiration to many.

Cory's parents, Teresa and Jim Gaudet, have formed a nonprofit organization, and with their first major event, a 5K road race and relay walk, Cory's Crusaders has raised $44,000. Five hundred twenty-five participants pre-registered for the event, and the couple said they believe more than 700 people showed up, including supporters and spectators.

The funds raised will go toward providing financial assistance to the families of children battling brain cancer, and while the couple is pleased that the event was such a success, they say they're just getting started.

Their goal is to provide $5,000 in assistance to the parents of children battling the disease every month.

"Having been through it ourselves, we know first hand what a financial strain it puts on a family even if you have the very best health insurance," said Jim. "What inspired us, and led us down this path, was the generosity of other people when we were going through the same thing."

The family estimated that between trips through the Make A Wish Foundation, support from organizations like the Clayton Dabney Foundation and Cups for Kids, personal donations, time off from work, and other contributions, $100,000 in help was given to them over the course of the 19 months Cory was fighting cancer.

"A lot of people would say to us, 'Don't you have insurance?' I don't think people understand that even if you have the very best of insurance - which we did - there are so many outside expenses," said Teresa.

Their son Cory underwent 36 consecutive radiation treatments after his diagnosis, followed by a 30-week clinical trial. The Gaudets' routine included daily trips to Boston, and expenses, from parking fees to missed work, added up fast.

"You're not eligible to collect unemployment just because your child is sick and dying," said Jim.

Teresa said, "We ran into a lot of people who were not as fortunate, who didn't have the support or network. We thought, what better way to give back than to start an organization where that's what we will be doing: We will be financially assisting families battling brain tumors."

The foundation plans to locate families in need of help through resource specialists at Boston Children's Hospital, The Jimmy Fund Clinic, and Hasbro Children's Hospital. And thanks to last month's event, they've already sent out their first two assistance checks. The funding has paid July's rent for two single mothers with children fighting brain tumors.

A board of friends and supporters meet regularly to make plans to move the organization forward, and Cory's old bedroom has been converted to an office, where signs of his life hang everywhere. Photos of the once athletic teen, who was diagnosed at age 16, include shots of Cory snowboarding, fishing, paragliding and skateboarding. Above the door, two smiley faces surround a sign with the words "Never Give Up," a slogan that's become something of a rallying cry for those who want to raise awareness of diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, the disease that took Cory's life.

The smiley face, it seems, was the teen's logo throughout his fight against cancer, in part due to an incident that took place just before the start of his 19-month ordeal.

On New Year's Day of 2011, Cory found a photo of the well known symbol that had been altered to display a crooked smile. The animated teen, who at the time did not know he would soon be sick, had his mother take a photo of him with the emblem, which he said had a smile "just like his," and send it to an aunt.

"At the time we didn't realize that his crooked smile was the result of his brain tumor," said Teresa. On Jan. 29, Cory was diagnosed with DIPG. From that time on, Cory bought smiley faces whenever he saw them, and friends would send the family unique pictures of the symbol.

Cory's brother Nicholas, a graphic design artist, has adapted the smiley face into a logo for Cory's Crusaders. In Nicholas's version, the symbol is grey - the color of brain tumor awareness - and the edges of the circular face are imperfect.

"The smiley face was rough around the edges because he said brain tumors leave you a little rough around the edges," said Jim.

Across the back of a smiley face T-shirt, sold to raise money for the cause, is another sign of the young man's enduring spirit: Cory's slogan "Never Give Up."

The smiley face symbol was an oddly appropriate symbol for the sick teenager, who by all accounts kept up high spirits and a positive and adventurous attitude throughout the difficult and painful ordeal.

On Dec. 12, 2011, doctors told Cory he had three weeks to live. On Jan. 1, 2012, he went snowboarding.

"When the doctors told him he had three weeks to live, he said he had three weeks to snowboard," said Jim.

Cory outlived doctors' predictions, and kept up that spirit to the end.

"It didn't matter if he had chemo that morning and was sick to his stomach, he would go out waterskiing," said Teresa. "His attitude was: Why waste a day?"

"The disease takes something away slowly, one piece at a time," said Teresa.

Cory first lost use of his left leg, then his right leg. By the end, he had lost his ability to speak, but used an iPad to communicate.

His parents attribute his "never give up" attitude with Cory's graduation from high school that year, and celebration of his 18th birthday.

Since the young man's death, around 30 people have had those words - Never give up - tattooed on their bodies, incorporating Cory's initials. Jim's version is on his wrist. And as part of their first event, the Gaudets gave out a $500 scholarship through the guidance department at BMR, with the criteria that it could not go to the best and brightest student.

"It had to be a child that has somehow struggled through something, and possessed that 'never give up' attitude," said Teresa.

This year's scholarship was presented to Michael Howard at BMR's Senior Awards Night on June 6.

Two more $500 scholarships were given out through a drawing of all the students who completed the 5K road race. The winners were BMR students Emillie Carroll and Jack Quitzau.

The organization plans to make the event and the scholarships part of an annual ritual. Additional plans include an event at Grumpy's Restaurant on Cory's birthday in August. Friends and supporters will gather at a celebrity bartending night with Jim and Teresa to serve as hosts. Other plans include a golf tournament, dinner-dances and possibly a comedy night and spook trail. In an ongoing fundraiser at Executive Auto in Woonsocket, for $10 guests can receive a deluxe car wash, $6 of which goes back to the fund. A store on their website sells the T-shirt, along with other items designed by Nicholas.

Above all, the family hopes to raise awareness about childhood cancer, a disease that they say is too often considered taboo to discuss.

"It's not brought to the forefront because people can't stomach it," said Jim.

As a result, the Gaudets say it is difficult to find funding for research.

"In all reality, awareness equals funding, equals research, equals cures," said Teresa.

In their second year, the family also hopes to raise funding for that research.

At the 5K, the Gaudets tied 2,400 ribbons around the track representing the number of children that die from cancer every year.

"Cory was number 1,077," in 2012, Jim said.

"He definitely had an awesome attitude and a big spirit and that's why we're doing this," said Teresa.

To donate, learn more about Cory's Crusaders, or keep track of upcoming events visit www.coryscrusaders.org.