As Meredith “Merry” Yacht approached her fifth birthday, she was diagnosed with cancer. She had been sick for a few months prior, but the doctors continually assured the family that is was nothing, that Merry was fine.A
“But I could feel it even though I couldn’t see it in the mirror,” Merry said.
Two weeks before she hit that quarter decade mark she woke up with a black eye, compliments of the tumor that formed in her nose, and it was obvious to her parents, Allison and Steve, that Merry was not fine. They rushed her to the hospital and had emergency surgery. Two days later, on Monday June 5, 2011 they found out that their daughter had rhabdomyosarcoma, a type of cancer that usually forms around the skull of young children.
“Imagine the worst feeling ever and multiplying it by 10, by 20,” Allison said.
Naturally, Allison immediately quit her job as a computer consultant and dedicated her time to Merry. Urgency is a common theme when anyone is battling cancer, especially so for children and their parents. Doctor’s appointments aren’t scheduled on convenience, but are more like orders. Be here at 9 a.m. on Monday and again at 8 a.m. on Tuesday. So following June 5, the Yacht’s year of treatment and craziness began.
Summer was on the horizon, and the family was gearing up to send Merry’s older brother Zach to summer camp and preparing Merry for her first year of kindergarten. But treatment came first, and for the first eight weeks they spent their time at the Colorado Children’s Hospital in Aurora.
The following eight weeks were spent in New York City where Allison and Merry moved to do radiation at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. They stayed with Steve’s parents in Manhattan while she went through treatment.
When the two moved to the city Merry had most of her hair, but once they moved back she was completely bald.
Merry Yacht of Bravehood
“I don’t remember when exactly I started losing it, but I remember how it started happening,” Merry said. “Usually I brush my own hair, and when I brushed it I looked at the brush and so much was coming out, and I started freaking out. I’m still a little scared to brush my hair.”
During chemotherapy, powerful medications attack rapid growing cancer cells as well as other cells, such as the ones found in hair roots. Hair loss usually occurs three weeks after treatment starts, and will last through the duration. Merry’s hair loss lasted for an entire year, which is longer than average.
Some people shave their head beforehand, but the Yachts cut Merry’s hair when they found out, and again shorter sometime later. The rest fell out as she underwent treatment. After the last strands fell out, the Yacht’s explored a number of options minimize the attention Merry received when she was out and about. They tried hats and scarfs, but those sometimes attracted more attention.
“It was also itchy and I just didn’t like the look,” Merry said. “But sometimes when I was out other kids would stare and sometimes they made fun of me, like a boy at a baseball game.”
The boy at the baseball game, who saw Merry as she was recovering, made jokes about her bald head, asking her why she was bald if she was a girl. And then called her a boy.
But it wasn’t all bad. Merry made a lot of friends she wouldn’t have, just by striking up conversation while waiting in line at Target. Kids would respond well once they explained that Merry had cancer, and that it definitely wasn’t contagious. But Merry still wanted a way to minimize the attention drawn to her, and about halfway through treatment Allison found a hooded T-shirt at a random retail store she couldn’t recall, and thought she would give that a try.
“It was perfect,” Allison said. “It was this lightweight knit-jersey shirt which didn’t overheat her like a sweatshirt, and it was easy to put the hood up so she didn’t attract attention. It made her feel a little more in control. The only problem is that finding a light-weight hooded t-shirt for someone Merry’s size is a lot harder than you would think.”
So Allison reached out. She called and emailed relatives and friends, asking them to be on the lookout for hooded t-shirts for Merry. She went to Kohl’s and bought one of every hooded T-shirts they had on the shelves. The collection grew as people sent more that they found while shopping.
Merry’s grandma sent one from New York, and in attempt to add a little style to the plain pink hoodie they decided to deck it out with a big heart on the front, with the words “cancer survivor” inside the heart. But it came out with a small heart on the chest, with the words underneath.
“It didn’t come out exactly how we wanted,” Merry said. “But we still have it in the basement.”
A sentimental reminder of how BraveHoods began.
Today, Merry is seven years old and her loosely curled brown hair frames the petite features of her face. The words “Veni, Vici, Vidi” are scribbled across the chest of her hooded T-shirt, which translates into “I came, I saw, I conquered.” But even though Merry has been in recovery for two years, she still keeps her toes dipped in the cancer world.
During remission, after they made the first BraveHood and her hair slowly grew back, Merry and her family set out to help other children battling cancer by adding a little joy and comfort to their world by sharing their fashion secret.
BraveHoods had formed.
With so many organizations concentrated on helping children battling cancer, the Yachts wanted to do something more personal. So drawing from their own experience, they started making more hooded T-shirts to give kids battling cancer, whether they are bald or not.
It works similarly to the popular shoe company Toms, where every T-shirt purchase sends a shirt to a child battling cancer. The buyer can also opt out of getting their own shirt and buy two for the children.
The shirts come in a multitude of colors and sizes, and all have inspirational quotes on the front, such as “future cancer survivor,” “it’s all good,” and “veni, vidi, vici.”
“These kids need both something to make them feel more comfortable and also lift their spirits,” Allison said. “What we hear a lot of is from the moms and dads who see their kids wearing these shirts that says ‘future cancer survivor’ really just gives them hope and brightens their day as well.”
Since the Yacht’s started BraveHoods in 2013, they have donated nearly 1,000 shirts as close to home as Denver, to children in Delaware, and even across the sea to the Philippines. The first drop was to Children’s Hospital Colorado.
Sent to Brent’s Place, a housing program for families with children battling cancer. The first shipment of BraveHoods, delivered on the mission to add joy and comfort during the most difficult times in these young children’s lives.
Once delivered, the volunteers and nursing staff at Brent’s Place handed out the hooded T-shirts to all of the children and out the left overs in the lobby so they could pick up a second one if they wanted.
“It was really a great thing to see,” Rachel Bernstein, community engagement manager at Brent’s Place, said. “They all came down and showed off their hoodies to each other, comparing them and smiling. There were a lot of smiles.”
Bernstein said that when these donations come in, it indeed gives the children comfort. Some are miles or states away from home, and even the littlest gifts brighten their day.
“It’s also great for the parents who can see that Merry went through this and is doing great,” Bernstein said. “It lifts everyone’s sprits.”
Even though they don’t deliver them in person, families still reach out and express their gratitude to the family in letters, emails and some even send photos of the kids in the shirts.
“It’s really fun to see other kids wearing the hoodies,” Merry said. “Especially when I see them smiling in the pictures.”
But BraveHoods doesn’t just stop there. When a child is diagnosed with cancer, it’s not just on that child but also on the entire family. Parents have to turn their attention to treatment, and siblings have to clutch on for the ride. It was something that Merry’s older brother Zach took in stride.
“It was just horror when we found out she had a tumor,” Zach said, also decked out in a BraveHoods sweatshirt clutching Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
Even though it was never the intention to put Zach on the backburner is seemed to Allison and Steve that it happened on occasion. That was hard for them to watch. So when they established BraveHoods, they made it a point to include the siblings of the children going through treatment.
In this, they are not alone. When Madelene Kleinhans’ little brother Addison was diagnosed with leukemia in 2010 everything changed. Doctors’ appointments took precedent, and when the initial novelty of spending time with extended family wore off Madelene started to feel abandoned. Her life was centered on her younger brother, and for an eight year old it was hard. Her mother, Sarah Kleinhans took notice.
“Addison’s treatment lasted for 38 months and it was hard on everyone especially Madelene,” Sarah said. “He was going through so much radiation, and still today if she has a sniffle she has to stay away so he doesn’t get sick. I could see her getting angry.”
That anger came to head over a box of toys. More specifically, a box of toys that were given to patients at the children’s hospital, and a box that Madelene couldn’t even touch. Confused and discouraged, she decided to create her own box of toys for siblings of the patients.
So, with determination and cause close to home Madelene hit the ground sprinting collecting not only toy donations, but also cash to buy toys. Soon she had more than 150 toys in her possession and a lot of money to buy more, but none of the hospitals would place the box, or give out the toys. She didn’t see this as defeat, but rather another challenge that she had to overcome.
With too many toys, and more than enough cash donations than what she knew what to do with, Madelene decided to start a support group for children whose siblings are battling cancer or have a terminal illness.
“Well it’s not really a support group because there isn’t a therapist,” Madelene said. “We don’t need another therapist, we just need a place to go and escape the hospital. It is our day off, and we need to enjoy it not dread it.”
So in October 2014, Madelene organized the first Heartfelt Hugs meeting, all by herself. Doing all of her own marketing and carrying most of the grunt work on her back, never taking “no” as an answer. So when only three siblings showed up to a pumpkin patch for a day filled with getting lost in a corn maze, and picking out pumpkins.
She did the same thing two months later in December, but with the addition of two new members. She traded in the pumpkin patch for an ice skating rink and invited her new members to leave the worry and stress off of the ice. The growth was small, and Madelene knew that if she wanted Heartfelt Hugs to continue growing she had to start marketing.
So, on her own, she set up a website, contacted the local Broomfield paper and started calling anyone she could think of. All of which worked. Going into the third meet up at the Paul Derda Recreation Center 36 siblings had RSVP’d.
“It’s completely her organization and I wanted her to do it all. Even when she made grammar mistakes on the website I left them,” Sarah said. “I want both of my kids to leave their own legacy and make their own mistakes.”
But even with the small grammar mistakes on her website, Madelene’s organization is on the rise, and at 12 years old she has set up a one year plan to meet every two months at different venues. And she’s not taking no as an answer. Partly because she is a marketing prodigy – just ask the suckers she corners with Girl Scout cookies – and partly because she still has the innocence of a child who isn’t trying to scam or trick people, but thinks that there’s not a reason to say no.
Madelene isn’t going to stop because she knows what it’s like to feel left out. She knows the struggles these children go through as they watch their siblings at their worst. She knows how great it feels to be able to escape for a day, and be an average kid.
“I’m not really thinking when we all hang out, it’s just a fun day with friends,” Madelene said. “What more do we need?”