News Articles

Small things make a difference, 12-year-old charity founder says

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Katie Vacanti-Mitchell turned 12 last April. She loves the color purple, plays softball and soccer, and teases her two younger brothers one minute then mothers them the next. Katie considers herself pretty ordinary.

But Katie’s world changed after her birthday. During a visit to Vanderbilt’s Children’s Hospital for a high fever, doctors diagnosed her with leukemia. The irony sobered Katie, who’d spent a year growing her hair long for Locks of Love, an organization that creates wigs from donated hair for cancer patients.

The first night she spent in the hospital, Katie sat on the bathroom floor by herself, buried her face in her hands and unsuccessfully tried to muffle her sobs from her parents.

“I just kept saying, ‘I don’t want to have cancer’ and ‘I just want to go home and everything be all right,’” Katie said.

That night is one of only two times she’s cried since her diagnosis. The second time came later when doctors inserted a feeding tube.

But Katie didn’t let her sadness stick around for long. Katie’s dad, James, works for Central Parking Corporation in Nashville, Tenn. Monroe Carell Jr., benefactor and founder of Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital and CEO of Central Parking Corp., inspired Katie when he personally visited her in the hospital, telling her how he spent time in hospitals as a child.

“When I met Mr. Carell, I realized that ordinary people can do extraordinary things,” Katie said.

When she finally arrived home, weak and sick from her first bout with chemotherapy, she insisted someone still come and cut her hair to donate it as she’d planned. She refused to keep it for herself, despite the reality that she might lose her own hair someday. After all, she told her mother, “Someone else can use it now.”

The summer months brought a slight reprieve in her illness, but Katie returned to the hospital in the fall for a 12-day stay. Her mother, Melissa, remembers how amazed she felt when Katie started asking questions — questions that had nothing to do with her own situation.

“It was about the second day we’d been there, and I was sitting with her in her room, and Katie looked over at me with this serious expression on her face and said, ‘Mom, I have a question,'” said Melissa, who works as a loss and prevention manager at LifeWay Christian Resources. “I just knew she was getting ready to ask me if she was going to die, and my heart skipped a beat because, frankly, I wasn’t ready for that conversation.”

But that’s not the question Katie had in mind. Instead, she wanted to know how she could start a charity.

Lying in her hospital bed, Katie thought about what she could do to help people just as her friend Mr. Carell does. She had noticed the families of adolescent patients — families who stay at the hospital. Though Vanderbilt covers 100 percent of the medical costs for those who can’t afford it, parents still pay for meals, long-distance phone calls and transportation to and from home.

“We’re lucky because we live close by, and my mom works for a great company, LifeWay,” Katie said. “The people there have really supported us, just like the people at our church [East Brentwood Presbyterian], but a lot of families are from out of town. I decided I could try and help those families so that there would be one thing they didn’t have to worry about when their son or daughter has cancer.”

With the help of the hospital staff, the young cancer patient formed “Katie’s Helping Hand.” The hospital staff manages and administers the fund, helping families with such needs as food, gas and hotel expenses.

“Katie has demonstrated that she is an unusually thoughtful and ambitious 12-year-old,” said Bruce Munns, director of LifeWay Christian Stores and Melissa Mitchell’s supervisor. “Most of us would simply be overwhelmed by our own problems. She, on the other hand, took on this challenge to help others while she is in the middle of her own battle with leukemia.”

Katie, who attended classes Jan. 24 for the first time this school year, and her brothers Zack, 11, and Matthew, 6, have thought about ways they can raise money for the fund, such as yard sales and canned food drives. The goal for the fund is $50,000.

“I hope we can help a lot of people,” Katie said. “Small things can make a huge difference. I know God put this on my heart to do. It makes you feel so much better, knowing you’re helping people who are going through the same thing that you are. You don’t feel as bad about yourself.”

Katie has received plenty of encouragement, with more than 200 cards from LifeWay employees and other people who have heard her story. Her selflessness hasn’t gone unnoticed — she recently was appointed Girl of the Year by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Nashville chapter, and Vanderbilt has asked her to help with additional fundraising efforts in the coming months.

But none of this means as much as what her mother told her recently on a day when Katie was feeling a little down, queasy and sick from yet another round of chemo, and coming to grips with losing her hair completely.

“You’ve raised $5,000 so far, Katie. That’s like a thousand families you’ve helped feed,” Melissa said.

Katie’s pale face looked a little brighter as she smiled, weak but happy.

“One thousand families … that’s pretty good,” she said.
For more information, visit Vanderbilt Children’s website at www.vanderbiltchildrens.com and click on “Helping Us,” then “Making a Contribution,” then “Katie’s Helping Hand.” Drop Katie a line in her online guest book at www.caringbridge.com/tn/katievacantimitchell.

    About the Author

  • Sara Horn