As nearly 700 people who were decked out in yellow, blue and red congregated last Saturday in Olathe’s Frontier Park for the annual Hope Walk and Touch-A-Truck to benefit Braden’s Hope for Childhood Cancer, the event’s 8-year-old namesake was busy climbing in and out of large trucks.
Braden Hofen was dwarfed against the silhouettes of huge excavators, dump trucks, fire engines and military vehicles assembled for the morning. His childish laughter and breathless questions were discernible above the other kids who scrambled and darted in and out of the mammoth machines.
“C’mon,” he shouted to the two girls acting as his escorts. “Wait ’til you see this!”
Saturday was a fun-filled day for Braden. He, along with lots of his friends, got to frolic and forget about troubles no kid should have to worry about — like chemo appointments, doctor visits and hospital stays.
Braden was diagnosed with neuroblastoma in 2007 when doctors found a tumor in his liver.
The deadly and aggressive childhood cancer carries a 30 percent survival rate.
Braden, who is also autistic, currently has relapsed neuroblastoma, for which there is no known cure.
Saturday’s carnival-like atmosphere included a pancake breakfast, the Chiefs’ KC Wolf mascot, raffle items and games. The morning kicked off with Braden and his peers with cancer — called “Heroes” — releasing hundreds of shimmery-winged butterflies in honor of friends who are “Angel Heroes” — those children who lost their lives from cancer during the past year.
Teams of walkers — clutches of moms, dads, brothers and sisters, grandmas and grandpas, aunts and uncles, neighbors and strangers — strolled a two-mile tree-canopied trail to commemorate kids with cancer and those who have died.
Braden’s Hope for Childhood Cancer is a nonprofit whose mission is to raise awareness and funds for research grants in the amount of $100,000 for hospitals and or research institutions.
It was founded by Braden’s mom, Deliece Hofen, known throughout the community as a tireless evangelist for children’s cancer.
Recently named along with husband Brian Hofen as a 2013 Kansas City Rising Star of Philanthropy by Nonprofit Connect, Hofen builds close relationships with families she meets through Braden’s Hope — even attending funerals and comforting parents in their grief.
Hofen has faced her own health challenges, diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer in 2009 when Braden experienced his first relapse with neuroblastoma. Her disease is in remission.
Hofen of Olathe is a former educator who left her 20-year career to care for Braden and be present for her oldest son, Zach, and husband, Brian.
“And to live in the present,” as she is fond of saying to anyone within earshot.
As storm clouds gathered midmorning at Saturday’s fundraiser, Hofen stood in the middle of Frontier Park dressed in the foundation’s signature blue, red and yellow, with the words “Hope” emblazoned on almost every article of clothing.
And surrounding Hofen — whose blue ball-capped head bobbed up and down from signing countless copies of her new book, “Take that Cancer!”— were small circles of men and women who solicit strength, hope and wisdom on helping a child with cancer.
“His eyebrows, will he lose them?” asked Janet Strahm of Sabetha, Kan., who drove there to be with her grandson, 4-year-old Colin, who was diagnosed with cancer in February. “He has neuroblastoma, just like Braden.”
Hofen dispenses hugs to Strahm and wipes a tear from the grandmother’s face. She leans into her, offering private words and administers one last, gentle squeeze before letting go.
“I read Deliece’s Caring Bridge all the time,” said Strahm, still emotional from her encounter with Hofen. “She is so graceful. She gives us hope.”
Margaret Hanson’s nearly 4-year-old daughter Olivia was diagnosed with rhabdomyo sarcoma in April 2011. Hanson, of Olathe, has never met Hofen but regularly follows her blog, Facebook posting and tweets.
“She’s helped me with leads on finding medical professionals,” said Hanson. “She is incredible.”
Hofen hovered over a table at Saturday’s event, signing yet another book, embracing parents, wiping tears from the face of a person she just met. Her smile dazzled and her mood was upbeat.
“Make every day count,” she said as she planted both hands on a woman’s shoulders who marveled at how she can remain optimistic even with a sick child. “We never know what tomorrow will bring.”
The woman slowly walked away, head down, hands clasped behind her back, in deep contemplation.
Suddenly the sun peeked from behind a dark cloud and Hofen, with her yellow, red and blue “Braden’s Hope for Childhood Cancer” backpack hanging on her petite frame, is left standing alone, dressed head-to-toe in hope.