It's a diagnosis no one ever wants to hear: cancer. And when that dreaded finding is preceded by the word "childhood," the blow is even more devastating. Yet every year, parents of nearly 16,000 children in the United States hear those words, and more than 40,000 children undergo cancer treatment.
A sold-out event in Statesboro, organized by Cyd Pagliarullo, Jody Polk and Hollie Jones, hopes to lend a hand to research that can cure childhood cancer forever. The Sisters on a Journey dinner, set for April 16, benefits Catie's Fund, a nonprofit organization that donates all proceeds to CURE Childhood Cancer.
Though tickets sold out in a matter of days after going on sale via social media, the Sisters on a Journey event continues to seek sponsors for moms of local cancer patients to attend the dinner for $40 each. Those interested in sponsoring can find more information at the Sisters on a Journey - Statesboro page on Facebook or at catiesfund.com.
Catie's Fund was founded after an Effingham couple, Tre' and Jenny Wilkins, received the heartbreaking news that their daughter, Catie, had medulloblastoma, an aggressive brain tumor, and then watched her fight the cancer for more than three years before losing her battle in mid-January 2007 to a common virus due to an immune system that was compromised because of chemotherapy.
Catie's parents and her pediatrician noticed developmental delays beginning when she was about 6 months old. Further observation and testing led to the discovery of a mass in her brain two days before her first birthday. Taken by ambulance to Atlanta, Catie endured a five-hour surgery on her birthday to remove a 5-centimeter mass.
Sadly, Tre' had lost a first cousin, 2-year-old Bailey, to a malignant brain tumor in 1990.
"I was terrified to know that Catie had what had killed Bailey," Jenny said. "Catie was with us until she was 4 ½; she was never off treatment, from her first birthday until she died."
Catie had 12 surgeries, four different chemotherapy protocols and six weeks of radiation. The medicines she received were the exact same drugs Bailey had been prescribed 15 years earlier. That shocking knowledge was unacceptable to the Wilkins couple, and they decided to take action to make a difference.
It took a couple of years to get organized - and take care of Izzy, who was born exactly one week after Catie died, and Chip, who was born two years after Izzy - but the first Sisters on a Journey dinner was held in Springfield in 2011 with about 50 people in attendance and raised $5,000. For the next two years, the Effingham dinner doubled each year, both in attendance and in funds raised.
In 2014, Mandy Garola, the mom of a childhood cancer survivor, added Savannah to the Sisters dinner locations, and this year, a Statesboro event was added. Jenny said they hope to add a new location every two years, with Richmond Hill next on the list.
"I never thought God could take the worst event of my life and turn it into my favorite night of the year," Jenny said of the dinners.
Since the first event in February 2011, Catie's Fund has raised $495,000 for lifesaving pediatric cancer research.
The Statesboro Sisters on a Journey team members have personal reasons for hosting the inaugural local benefit. Cyd Pagliarullo, mom of three, is married to First Baptist Church College Minister Tony Pagliarullo. Tony and Tre' are first cousins.
"Jenny turned tragedy into purpose," Cyd said. "Her faith is very strong, and she pours her grief into benefiting others."
The event is very personal to host Jody Polk because she's heard those devastating words, "Your child has cancer." Her daughter, Anna Hays Polk, is a survivor of acute lymphoid leukemia who was diagnosed in 2011, one day before her third birthday.
The third member of the Statesboro team, Hollie Jones, worked in the school system in Marlowe with Jenny previously.
"I was very impressed with how she turned her tragedy into something good and supportive for other moms," Hollie said of Jenny.
The CURE website states that the organization believes childhood cancer can be cured in our lifetime - but it can't happen without much-needed research.
"Most people don't understand how underfunded kids' cancer research is," Jenny said. "The big cancer organizations are great and do wonderful things for adults, but less than 4 percent of federal funding is directed specifically for childhood cancer."