Using Cookies and Communication to Combat Pediatric Cancer

Gretchen and Emily at their organizations Chefs for Kids' Cancer event.More than 10 years ago, Meredith alumnae Gretchen Holt Witt, ’89, and Emily Necessary Fowler, ’98, were brought together by a common goal – doing what they could to end pediatric cancer. But what truly sparked their connection was another shared quality – the writing and communication skills they learned as English majors at Meredith College.

After Witt’s son, Liam, was diagnosed with neuroblastoma in February 2007, she started a blog to chronicle their fight. One of her readers was Fowler, who had learned about Liam through a mutual friend.

Fowler recalled, “It was Gretchen’s writing that drew me to her. I told my friend, ‘I love the way his mother writes.’ And my friend said, ‘I think she went to Meredith College’.”

In the midst of Liam’s fight, Witt and her husband, Larry, organized a bake sale to raise funds for pediatric cancer research. This first event succeeded beyond expectations, selling 96,000 cookies and raising more than $400,000.

The Witts decided to continue this model by asking others to join them in what officially became the nonprofit Cookies for Kids’ Cancer in 2008. Fowler was one of those who answered the call early on.

“I put out a birthday wish when Liam was in a particularly difficult time of his fight asking for 100 people to hold a bake sale. Emily reached out to me directly for the first time,” said Witt. “Today she serves as Cookies for Kids’ Cancer executive director − the person who keeps everything moving forward, or as we say, the person who keeps the plates spinning. Emily deals with everyone from doctors to donors.”

What initially moved Fowler from a bake sale volunteer to an integral role in the new organization was her willingness to write copy for the organization’s first website.

“I raised my hand, just like I do to this day when there’s a writing project, and said let me help,” Fowler said. “I wasn’t a subject matter expert. But I knew what to do because of my training at Meredith, which taught me to be inquisitive, to ask questions, to do research, to look for sources, to cross reference, and then to make it my own.”

Witt and Fowler not only share an alma mater, but also a major. Their common history allowed Witt to trust Fowler with this important work.

“There’s a certain sisterhood you share when you meet another Meredith English major that is almost like being a part of a secret society,” Witt said. “You just know the cloth from which someone is cut and know that you are meeting someone who is a hard worker and tenacious.”

Fowler said the two of them quickly bonded. “As soon as we both realized we were English majors, we instantly went to English 111, Chaucer, a love of Shakespeare. You go there immediately because of the longstanding traditions of the English department.”

In the 10 years since its founding, Cookies for Kids’ Cancer has provided $15 million for pediatric cancer research. An impressive amount for any young nonprofit, this total is crucial because of the lack of funding for the cause.

“Even though pediatric cancer is the #1 disease killer of children, it receives a very small amount of funding in terms of research dollars from the federal government and even less attention from the private sector,” Witt explained. “Organizations like ours are vitally important for children battling cancer today and those who will be called into the battle tomorrow.”

The organization continues to be inspired by Liam, who passed away in January 2011 after a nearly four-year fight.

“Liam was a child who lived his almost seven years here to the fullest,” his mother said. “He let love guide him and was a friend to everyone he met – from a cafeteria worker in the hospital, to a doctor, to a cab driver, to his favorite maintenance person.”

Still today, Witt and Fowler use Liam’s inspiration, and their skills as public relations professionals, to get others to join their fight.

“We didn’t know [at first] how to inspire thousands of people to host bake sales, but we knew how to use language to get people on board with what we were doing,” said Fowler. “And we knew that our vision for raising funds was pure and good.”

Witt said her English major was a source of strength in this effort.

“There are the obvious skills I learned as an English major in terms of writing and research, but I gained so much more. I learned how to work harder than I ever thought I could work; I learned not to give up,” Witt said. “My English major has served me so well over the years because it taught me how to think. I am so grateful for the experience and will never be able to adequately explain its value.”

Fowler, a former English teacher and communication consultant, feels lucky that she’s able to use her skills in support of a worthy cause. Her role as executive director includes fundraising and persuasive writing.

“Major written content such as corporate proposals and grants still originates from me,” Fowler explained. “Every day, I’m telling a story, in writing or verbally, and inspiring people to be a part of it.”

Over the years, many Meredith College community members have been inspired to support the Cookies for Kids’ Cancer cause, some even before the organization’s launch. When she gave Meredith’s commencement address in 2010, Witt shared that the first parent she was connected to after her son’s diagnosis turned out to be a Meredith alumna. Shirley Staples, ’71, was also the mother of a son with neuroblastoma, and she became a source of support before they realized their Meredith connection.

“It was only by chance when I mentioned on Liam’s blog about being a Meredith Angel that Shirley and I realized the depth of our connection. She, too, was a Meredith alum who graduated with an English degree.”

As her relationships with both Staples and Fowler show, Witt said, Meredith alumnae of all ages have a common bond.

“We are all much the same … dependable, hardworking, independent thinkers,” Witt said in her commencement speech. “A Meredith grad is true to her convictions and not afraid to speak up.”

Alumnae, faculty, and staff have held bake sales and given to the organization in a variety of ways. Paige Cockman, ’12, and her husband, Josiah Shackleton, chose to use their wedding to support Cookies for Kids’ Cancer.

“For us, incorporating Cookies for Kids’ Cancer into our wedding was a no brainer. We agreed material things just weren’t important to us and we would rather raise money for an important cause,” Cockman said. “As a neuroblastoma survivor and Meredith alum, I’ve always felt a special connection to Cookies. With the support of our family and friends, we raised nearly $5,000 to go directly towards pediatric cancer research.”

Professor of English Garry Walton and Professor Emerita Betty Webb taught Witt and Fowler at Meredith. Both are proud to see them succeed using skills gained through the English major.

“A hallmark of Meredith English classes for generations has been that powerful combination of very high expectations and very high levels of personal support to help students discover and reach their untapped potential,” said Walton. “Hard working, motivated young women go from being strong students to dear friends of their faculty over the decades as we see them turn classroom skills into life achievements.”

Webb agrees that the Cookies for Kids’ Cancer team are strong examples of the power of a Meredith English major.

“That Gretchen and Emily would find each other is delightful karma. They are both amazing women — passionate, persuasive, determined,” Webb said. “Their studies in the Department of English would have certainly helped them to refine their communication skills, enabling them to write and speak clearly, correctly, and aptly. In addition, they would have learned to argue hard and to support what they asserted. That skill has certainly served each exceptionally well in their careers as persuasive advocates.”

Susan Blaney, director of Texas Children’s Cancer and Hematology Centers, who serves as the medical director for Cookies for Kids’ Cancer, praises Witt and Fowler for their passion.

“It is not surprising that Gretchen and Emily’s work ethic, integrity, and philosophies are so closely aligned given the similar influences they had at Meredith College,” said Blaney. “Their relentless efforts have already had an incredibly positive impact in the field of pediatric oncology – and that impact will only continue to increase over time.”

At its heart, Cookies for Kids’ Cancer is about Liam, the much loved son lost too soon, but whose spirit lives on at every bake sale. The organization’s longevity is a point of pride for Witt.

“Honestly, there are so many well-intentioned nonprofits out there that lose energy and steam along the way and they don’t survive. To be able to stand the test of time and to have funded $15 million in research is so humbling,” Witt said.

She continues to be inspired when meeting children who have benefitted from treatments funded by Cookies for Kids’ Cancer.

“The work we are doing is having an impact,” Witt said. “The research projects we fund are giving children options, more options than Liam had when he was battling cancer.”

Betty Webb is one of many who believe in Cookies for Kids’ Cancer and the Meredith alumnae who lead it.

“I have often said that pediatric cancer should be frightened now that those two women have partnered to eradicate it,” Webb said. “I know whom my money is on.”

Melyssa Allen

News Director
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