Imagine being a kid stuck in a cancer ward at Christmastime, getting poked and prodded, feeling sick, and very often bored waiting for the next test or blood draw, while missing out on all the magic and fun of the season.
Jacob Goeders of Mountain View, CA., 11, doesn’t have to imagine, because he’s lived it. And because he knows what it’s like, Jacob is in his second year playing “Santa” to dozens of children at Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto this week, delivering presents he purchased after raising money from Facebook friends, and friends of friends.
Two years ago on Dec. 2, Jacob was diagnosed with high risk Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, landing him in the Packard cancer ward during the holiday season. Christmas was suddenly upended for Jacob, his mom, Sherry, his dad, Todd, and his little brother Jordan, then age 4.
As the one-year anniversary of the diagnosis approached last year, Jacob got an idea: what if he asked all his friends to donate $1 so that he could buy Christmas presents for the other children on the cancer ward and bring them a little holiday cheer?
“I wanted to make other kids feel good, and I wanted to do something,” Jacob told me recently. “I felt good because I was helping other kids who were stuck in the hospital like I was.”
Superhero Alter Ego
As it turns out, Jacob isn’t just any mild-mannered boy, he has a superhero alter ego known as “The Leukemia Slayer”. He adopted the persona earlier in 2011 when his family started a Facebook page by the same name, to keep family and friends updated on Jacob’s treatment. Jacob didn’t just have a few friends, he had more like a couple thousand.
Those friends donated in excess of $2,000 to what was dubbed “The Santa Slayer Project”, allowing Jacob and his family to buy more than 200 gifts for kids in the cancer ward, as well as other areas of the hospital.
“When he started walking down and handing out the presents, the parents were crying. It was more emotional than I expected,” Sherry Goeders said. “Moms teared up, I teared up. (Jacob) was somebody who knows what it’s like, and has been there…it was really cool.”
Not only was it cool, it was courageous. Jacob underwent a painful chemotherapy treatment immediately before he handed out presents to other children as the Santa Slayer. At that point of “front line” treatment, Jacob was skinny and had no hair. Sherry said he looked sick.
A year later, Jacob is in maintenance treatment. He visits the hospital once a week for lab work, and gets chemotherapy pills about once a month. His hair is back, and he looks healthier. He will remain in treatment until 2014, when he expects to slay Leukemia once and for all.
The Santa Slayer Returns (And Gets Some Major Help)
A few months ago friends started asking if the Santa Slayer Project would return. The fundraising began, and Jacob and his family raised just under $2,000, for another round of more than 200 gifts.
There are too many for just the children on the cancer ward, so extras will go to children in other wards, as well as at the nearby Ronald McDonald House. The family also bought small toys and games to stock the toy chest at the hospital’s lab, so kids coming in for tests can pick out a special reward. Any money left over, or that comes after the Santa Slayer makes his deliveries, is used to create special Valentine’s and Easter gift bags.
Wrapping 200-plus toys and games is a huge job, and the Goeders thought they wouldn’t be able to handle the task this year, but just as they were reluctantly resigning themselves to not doing it (“Unwrapping it is half the fun,” said Sherry), along came a Facebook message from Nicole Neal, Director of Public Relations at the Four Seasons Hotel in East Palo Alto.
Neal and the Four Seasons are “passionate” supporters of Lucille Packard, she said. Through following the hospital’s Facebook page, Neal began following The Leukemia Slayer’s page. When she saw the notice about the Santa Slayer Project, she contacted Sherry and offered the volunteer help of employees to handle wrapping, as well as a donation from the hotel to cover the cost of wrapping paper and bows.
Rolling Out the Red Carpet for the Slayer
Two weeks ago Jacob, Sherry, Todd, and Jordan visited the Four Seasons so that the Santa Slayer could check on the employees’ progress in wrapping the gifts. What the family didn’t know was that Neal planned an afternoon of surprises.
For example, Neal noticed from Jacob’s Leukemia Slayer posts that he likes pizza. So after Jacob got a first-hand look at the wrapping operations by employees, he was introduced to Four Seasons Chef Marco Fossati, who presented Jacob with his very own monogrammed “Slayer” chef’s jacket. He whisked Jacob and Jordan to the hotel’s kitchen for a private pizza-making lesson.
Parents Todd and Sherry said they didn’t expect that the hotel would “roll out the red carpet.” They could tell Jacob was having a well-deserved fun day. Sherry said kids with cancer have their childhoods taken away from them, when faced with an adult world of painful realities.
Even Jordan, chimed in while munching away at the handmade pizza that, “This is the best day of my life!”
“I think it’s amazing you have an 11-year-old that thinks of others,” Neal said to Todd and Sherry, underscoring the sentiments from other hotel employees who wanted to acknowledge Jacob’s generosity.
Jacob’s desire to help other kids with cancer goes beyond playing Santa at Christmas. He’s also a big volunteer with Alex’s Lemonade Stand, an organization that raises money for children’s cancer research, and Hoops for Hope, a basketball-themed fundraiser for Lucille Packard.
I asked Jacob if he’ll repeat Santa Slayer next year, and without hesitation he gave an enthusiastic, “Yes!”
“It’s kind of a tradition, huh?” Sherry said to her son.
Why kids are so good at making a difference in the world, I asked Jacob.
“Cause kids rule!” Jacob said with a big smile. “They can reach into smaller places and be more creative.” Then turning to his parents, he said, “I’m not saying you’re not creative, kids are just a little more creative.”
What’s Jacob’s advice for other kids and grownups about how to help others?
“Think of what the person needs and try to give it to them.”
Wise advice, from an 11-year-old who is making the holidays just a little brighter for other kids.