Brahmans plan to ‘go gold’ for the first home football game of regular season

OKEECHOBEE — The National Cancer Institute dedicates only 4 percent of it’s funding to childhood cancer research. One Okeechobee mom wants to change that.

Vanessa Villalpando’s journey into becoming an activist fighting to raise awareness of childhood cancer started 17 years ago when her daughter, Lexi Villalpando, was diagnosed with leukemia shortly after being born.

Lexi was transferred St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., and Vanessa was assured that St. Jude’s was the best place in the country for her daughter. But she was given a stark introduction to how deadly childhood cancer actually was, even with the best care in the world, when seven kids died back to back within the first week of Vanessa and Lexi arriving at the hospital.

Vanessa Villalpando (left) and Jason Anderson (right) pose with the ‘Be Bold, Go Gold’ t-shirts next to a sign promoting childhood cancer awareness. Okeechobee News/Richard Marion.

“It was pretty overwhelming,” said Ms. Villalpando, “just the amount of kids that were dying and being diagnosed. My daughter’s patient number is in the 18,000s at St. Jude, and that was back in 2001. The numbers at the hospital now are at almost 60,000 so you tell me if anything has changed in the past 17 years. It hasn’t. There are too many kids that are dying and too many new diagnoses.”

The NFL, MLB, NBA and high school’s across the nation ‘go pink’ to raise awareness for breast cancer and the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation has raised over $2.6 billion in the past 24 years for breast cancer programs across the globe. Vanessa wants to see that same kind of success with people ‘going gold’ for childhood cancer.

“I was tired of sitting on the sidelines, so I said to myself ‘make some noise, do something,’ explained Ms. Villalpando. “I don’t want to die not knowing that I did everything I could for my daughter.”

Vanessa got started in 2017 by making gold ribbons for people to hang on their mailboxes and for local businesses to put on their store fronts. All the ribbons were hand made (and still are) by friends and family. She also hung signs around town encouraging people to ‘go gold’ to raise awareness that September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month.

Around that same time OHS varsity cheerleader Lauren Coffey worked to get Vanessa’s daughter Lexi named an honorary cheerleader at the homecoming game that year. After a lifetime of feeling different from others due to her cancer diagnoses, it was a moment of normalization and fitting in for Lexi. Vanessa refers to that night as a beautiful memory for her daughter.

After the success of 2017, it wasn’t long before Vanessa started receiving messages asking what she had planned for 2018. Already swamped with the work of making ribbons, she was unsure of what the next step would be. That’s when Jason Anderson, OHS automotive teacher and the voice of Brahman football, reached out to Vanessa with the idea of selling gold t-shirts to turn the home stands gold for the Brahmans first home game this year on Sept. 21 against the Port St. Lucie Jaguars.

“This is all Jason,” said Ms. Villalpando. “It’s amazing, I can’t wait to see the stands. I know I’m going to be in a lot of tears just to be able to see the stands in gold and know that people are becoming aware. Then hopefully we can start getting the funding going.”

The gold shirts have words ‘Be Bold, Go Gold” in purple text and are being sold in Mr. Anderson’s automotive class for $10 each, with all proceeds going to support childhood cancer research. Mr Anderson says he envisions the stands being filled with gold shirts, similar to how Penn State holds ‘white out’ games where every fan wears white in the stands. They’ve printed around 400 shirts so far and hope the event will be even bigger next year.

Also on the shirt is the hashtag ‘morethan4’, which references the 4 percent of funding that the National Cancer Institute (NCI) dedicates to childhood cancer research.

One of the Vanessa’s goals is to get NCI to increase their funding of childhood cancer research. Private pharmaceutical companies have been reluctant to put resources into childhood cancer research as well. According to the American Childhood Cancer Organization, the market for rare pediatric cancer treatments is so small that pharmaceutical companies lack the financial incentives to develop new childhood cancer medications, leaving children with limited treatment options and excessively harsh and often unsafe drugs and treatments that were originally formulated to treat adult cancers.
“Ninety-six percent of the government’s cancer funding goes to adults and only 4 percent goes to our children,” said Ms. Villalpando.

Jason Anderson (left) and his wife Belinda Anderson (right) fold the gold shirts in Mr. Anderson’s classroom after school. Okeechobee News/Richard Marion.

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