A mother and father whose lives turned upside-down after a routine pediatric well-child visit, a little boy who had a passion for cooking and fought for his life, a damn good cookie sale that made a world of a difference in the battle against childhood cancer and a community of caring chefs who can help make it better. This is the story of the Cookies for Kids’ Cancer foundation and Chefs for Kids’ Cancer, a benefit I was fortunate to attend last week that raised $1.2 million for the cause.
Who knew something as simple as a cookie could make a difference against a disease as formidable as cancer? The unthinkable changed the course of Gretchen and Larry Witt’s lives in February 2007 when their two-and-a-half-year-old son Liam was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. And while this is indeed a story filled with tremendous grief, it is also one of unwavering spirit, rising above tragedy and making a difference. The motto for Cookies for Kids’ Cancer is together we can. With a rather simple, grassroots notion of a bake sale, the organization has raised over $10 million and has funded 80 research projects. Those 80 projects have led to 30 treatments children are receiving today.
I was so moved by Gretchen and Larry’s experience that I was inspired to do my own small part in sharing Liam’s story and his legacy. Today I share a recipe from Dan Kluger, who is a chef co-chair for the Chefs for Kids’ Cancer gala along with fellow chefs Marc Forgione, James Kent and Marc Murphy. Gretchen shared, “After Liam lost his 4-year battle, we had a few chefs come to us and say we should think about having an event to raise money for research.” It was Dan and his wife Hannah who originally encouraged Gretchen to explore the idea of creating a chef-based event. And today I was invited into their home to cook Dan’s swoony black bass and cauliflower dish, which was a part of his menu at this year’s benefit.
Chefs for Kids’ Cancer 2016 was an incredible event — 20 renowned chefs, 400 guests and 11,900 cookies. Its goal was to raise awareness and funding for pediatric cancer, but the energy, while at times emotional, was also a lot of fun. The chefs were stationed in the center of the room so the dinner guests could see them cook, chat and engage with them. It was a profound night, and it arose because a mama endured tremendous devastation. “I have lost the greatest thing a parent can ever suffer – my child was taken from my arms by a disease I couldn’t do anything against,” Gretchen said. Completely vulnerable, and with an open heart, she dreamed big and floated an idea into the universe.
“I simply asked people to join this cause that is much bigger than any one individual and be part of a community who together can help make it better. And wouldn’t you know it, we received an overwhelming response of people opening up their hearts, donating their talent and making sacrifices to help kids everywhere battle a disease that no child should even know exists. The chef community is such an incredible group of hard working, caring and passionate mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters.”
Gretchen believes the plight of pediatric cancer is one that first requires education to let people know about the problem, and then a way for people to get involved, in order to make an impact.
Gretchen came face-to-face with the lack of awareness when she learned that childhood cancer is the number one disease killer of children in the U.S. She was shocked to never have heard this staggering fact before. From that moment on, she knew it wasn’t that people didn’t care about pediatric cancer, it was that they barely knew about it.
“Our organization is one that was born with grassroots efforts being held across the country, in all 50 states and 15+ countries around the world with the message that every dollar counts which makes everyone feel like they are part of the solution. Thousands of events take place from elementary students to businesses. There is such a sense of community when people work together, the same way that there is a sense of community at the Chefs for Kids’ Cancer event.”
And while this year’s fabulous Chefs for Kids’ Cancer benefit has come to a close, Cookies for Kids Cancer efforts take place 365 days a year. The organization encourages people to get involved and take an active stance in reallocating a very unbalanced piece of the charitable pie; although childhood cancer is the number one disease killer of children in the U.S., it receives less than 4 percent of the National Cancer Institute’s $5.2 billion budget.
“Children are our future and since we do so much to ensure they are safe and healthy, why wouldn’t we be doing more to help battle this insidious disease?” Gretchen said. “Wishes and prayers can’t move science forward. To move science forward, we have to invest in it and less than a 4 percent slice of the research pie isn’t enough.”