Katie Wilkin’s Facebook page is filled with pictures of her three girls. Like so many parents, she is proud to share all their milestones — first days of school, birthdays, celebrating Halloween or Christmas.
But for one of her daughters, Alexa Hartenstein, those are frozen in time. She passed away in 2015 at the age of 5 following a valiant battle against an aggressive form of brain cancer. Ever day since then, Wilkin and Alexa’s family have been fighting their own battle against the crushing wave of grief.
But they’ve found a way to move forward, celebrating Alexa’s memory by raising awareness of childhood cancers through their nonprofit, Team Alexa — Fighting Back, which has recently partnered with a larger, Georgia-based organization, CURE Childhood Cancer. For the past three years, they have raised both money and awareness of the disease. One of the ways they’ve done that is through Redfern Goes Gold, a night of food and fun held in September, Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.
“The event originally started as a dinner to honor Alexa and to show support to two of our local families who had a child battling cancer. Since then, it has evolved into our biggest fundraiser of the year,” Wilkin said.
The night, returning from 6-10 p.m., Sept. 7, at Gnat’s Landing in Redfern Village on St. Simons Island, draws together businesses and the community to support the families of local children with cancer.
“This year, we will once again have our local families honored at the event. Face painting, games and a chance to paint at The Tinted Tide ... there will also be live music and Be The Match! (a bone marrow donation sign up),” Wilkin said. “Gnat’s Landing will also donate a portion of sales from the night to us.”
The effort also uses gold, the color of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, as a tangible way to show support for these children in neighborhoods throughout the community. Shiny bows will be displayed as decoration on mailboxes from one end of the county to the other.
For Wilkin, sharing Alexa’s story and the struggles of the other local children has been incredibly rewarding.
“I’ve watched so many new people join us year after year who had never heard of the event, Alexa’s story, or who had no idea that there were several kids in our community still affected by cancer,” Wilkin said. “This event is so important to me, as it is a way for me to continue Alexa’s legacy of giving back to a community that gave so much to her. Not only are we able to raise money for the Team Alexa Fighting Back Fund benefiting CURE Childhood Cancer, we are also able to connect to these local families and let them know that they are not in this fight alone. The support of the community means so much in times like this.”
Cassie Busby and her family certainly understand that. The Busbys have been supporting their son and brother, Chase, as he receives treatment for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Chase has not alone either. Several other local children have also been treated for the condition, known as ALL.
“Our son Chase, who has leukemia, has been undergoing treatments for the longest amount of time, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel and he will be finished with chemo on Oct. 29,” Busby said.
As with the other families impacted, the Busbys have been on an emotional roller coaster since Chase’s diagnosis. The community support, Busby notes, has helped to ease the pain and reinvigorate their spirits.
That, Busby says, is particularly true of the “go gold” effort.
“The gold bow campaign is our favorite way for our community to show their support. To us as a family, ‘going gold’ is important because it gives our son and his sisters a concrete visual as to how many people support him and pray for him. Children don’t always understand the magnitude of numbers, but they do understand when there are gold ribbons splashed throughout their neighborhood,” she said. “With the gold bow campaign, Chase can actually make the connection that all those bows he counts while riding around town symbolizes all the people and families in his community that pray for him and his fellow cancer-fighters.”
Janice Loggins is one of those. Like Chase, the little girl was diagnosed with Leukemia in 2016. Her mother, Shajuanda Harrison, said the road since has been very difficult.
“She went into remission but relapsed in 2017,” Harrison said.
Since then little Janice has endured a bone marrow transplant and attacks by viruses. She is currently in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit in Jacksonville.
“She’s had complications after the bone marrow transplant in March,” Harrison said. “She has been in the PICU for a month.”
All the while, Harrison and her husband have had to continue to travel to care for her, work and continue to care for their other children. The worry, travel and expense certainly add up, which is why the community support — monetary or otherwise — is so important.
“We have to make sure our other kids are OK. We have to buy gas and food. It takes a lot to make ends meet, especially when both parents can’t work because I have to be at the hospital. My husband works to provide for the household. It’s a lot,” she said.
Wilkins understands the burden which is why the funds from Redfern Goes Gold will go directly to families like the Harrisons to help with those type of expenses.
Wilkin knows that, as a mama, Harrison’s full focus is on keeping up her little girl’s spirits. And it certainly is — Harrison always reminds the St. Simons Elementary student how much she’s cared for by her teachers, friends and community. She even took one of the locally made gold bows down to Jacksonville, placing it above her hospital room door.
The bows are still available and donations can be made through Wesley United Methodist’s website www.wesleyssi.org/gold-bows. Every dollar donated will go towards the children in the county who are battling cancer.
In addition to the bows and Redfern Goes Gold, other events are planned. Strike Out Childhood Cancer will be held Sept. 29 at the Strike Zone.
“Also, during the Glynn Academy football game this Friday, our local children who are fighters, survivors, and angels will be recognized and remembered during the coin toss and supported by the students who will be doing a ‘Gold Out Game,’” Busby added.