Nine-year-old Gavin wanted a basketball court in his bedroom — a real, neighborhood basketball court down to the chain-link fence and buildings with graffiti art.
His brother Danny, 11, had been watching HGTV for years, and had even grander ideas: a bedroom with shiplap walls, a night-sky ceiling and a fireplace.
Gavin is being treated for aggressive, b-cell, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Both he and Danny, whose parents requested their last names not be used, were having bedroom makeovers courtesy of Tom Mitchell and his childhood cancer foundation, Stillbrave, which partnered with Home Works Painting to bring the dream rooms to life.
“We’ve pulled out all the stops,” said Mitchell excitedly, as a small crowd of contributors, along with the boys and their parents, gathered before the big reveal on a recent weekday in Ashburn, Va.
The event was just one of the many innovative ways Mitchell has come up with to provide non-medical support to children with cancer and their families through the nonprofit he founded in 2009. Stillbrave supplies moral, financial and practical help, even stepping in to handle household chores for families. At the same time, it works to raise awareness that research on childhood cancer, the No. 1 disease killer of children in the United States, and new treatments to combat it are grossly underfunded.
Mitchell, 50, meets directly with the children, their families and often social workers to learn the ways in which his foundation can best help. The work is primarily funded by hundreds of thousands of dollars he and supporters raise through sponsored long-distance trail races — including some of the nation’s most grueling.
He also holds other types of fundraisers, like the foundation’s annual concert this Saturday in Falls Church to pay the salary of a hospital member who will run the adolescent and young adult program at INOVA Children’s Hospital. This year he has decided to rename the event for a teen he met named Cody, who has been diagnosed with the same kind of cancer his daughter had when she died.
Finding his ‘Why’
Shayla Mitchell, 16, had been diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. As a single parent, Mitchell often had to stay home to care for her in their apartment in Centreville, Va. Mitchell, who ran a home improvement business at the time, said the situation left them financially strapped — “where I sometimes didn’t have gas money to get to her chemotherapy, couldn’t pay rent, didn’t have groceries.” Then a group called Growing Hope stepped in with $1,600 to help with his living costs.
Humbled and grateful, he wanted to pay them back. In his youth, he had been a boxer, and early in his daughter’s struggle with cancer, he had gone back to the gym as a form of therapy. There he met Jimmy Lange, a professional boxer in the DC metro area. Lange became involved, befriending Shayla in the hospital, and soon learned of Mitchell’s boxing history. One thing led to another, and at age 40, Mitchell took up the gloves again, participating in two fights at the former Patriot Center, now EagleBank Arena, in Fairfax.
Mitchell was knocked out in the first and second rounds, but he still managed to raise $20,000 that he gave to Growing Hope. During this time, he also lost his daughter.
“I went into a dark abyss,” Mitchell said, and for six months, he did little but grieve.
One day, Mitchell said, he came upon a Mark Twain quote, although he can not recall now exactly where he saw it. He had always been a fan of famous quotes, memorizing them, drawing upon them, and this one struck him hard. “He said ‘The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you discover why.’ And I knew after I read that quote that I was going to spend the rest of my life helping kids with cancer and their families.”
He and his daughter talked about this before she died. It was clear fundraising from boxing, and a subsequent news story about it, had set him on a new path, and together they saw the possibilities. She made him promise to help others in situations similar to theirs.
Stillbrave is born
Mitchell thought of creating a foundation, though boxing did not seem viable anymore for fundraising, due to his age. Then he found himself thinking that running — something he’d done as part of his boxing training — could be a source to raise money. Even though he was daunted by the idea of running long distances, he dove into training for a marathon anyway. But he had to pull out of the fundraiser after he suffered stress fractures in his leg.
“I asked everybody if they wanted their money back, and nobody [did], so I gave the majority of that money to Growing Hope, and I took what was left and I bought some business cards and some fliers and started filing for my articles of incorporation,” Mitchell said. The Stillbrave Foundation became official.
A doctor told Mitchell to rest for eight weeks and then to use crutches for another six. Mitchell was up and running just five weeks later, and then, that fall, he ran the Marine Corps Marathon in four hours. He cut a striking figure on the course, with the skin art that had earned him the nickname “Tattoo Tom” when he once owned a tattoo shop.
At the marathon, he met a local trail runner who suggested he get off the roads and onto trails, where she said the experience of running was more spiritual and healing. “She was of course, right,” Mitchell said.
After a few successful 50k-distance trail races, he decided to run a 50-mile race that raised $20,000. Excited by this success, he set his sights higher. He had raced the 50-miler with his friend Adam Kathouda and soon had signed them both up to run in a 100-mile race, the Monhican 100, in Ohio.
At Monhican, Mitchell tried a different fundraising tact that would become his formula: he dedicated each of the miles of the race to a different child with cancer, and he carried their pictures with him. Families, individuals, businesses and organizations could sponsor an individual child and their mile. The race and the new formula proved to be the most successful fundraiser yet. They raised $88,000.
Mitchell set his sights still higher, raising $236,000 in the Tahoe 200, a notoriously difficult 200-mile race around the alpine California lake. “There was an excitability around it,” Mitchell said. “The universe conspired in our favor.”
He decided to aim for another 200-miler, the Bigfoot, through the Cascade mountain range in Washington state, with stretches on the still-scorched face of Mount St. Helens in direct sunlight in the unrelenting 90+-degree heat of day. Attempting it first in 2016, he had to stop at mile 91, but he still managed to raise well over $100,000.
He tried the challenging course again in 2017, but this time, was injured badly at mile 31, and on the advice of a medic, pulled out. The race was memorable for another reason: “After I didn’t complete the race, the childhood cancer community rallied around me, and they all went out and ran … to make up the [remaining] 170 miles,” Mitchell said. “It was so powerful.”
This gave Mitchell yet another fundraising idea, and for his third attempt at the race, which he will run in August 2018, he has again dedicated each mile to a different child. This time, however, the foundation has created a competition where teams can each sponsor a child’s mile, and then compete to raise the most funds and/or run the most miles for that child. So far, they have already raised $70,000, sometimes in unconventional ways.
“We had a little girl do a lemonade stand last week. One little girl made 700 dollars!” Mitchell said.
Years after his daughter’s devastating illness and death, Mitchell now wakes up in the morning knowing his ‘why,’ as Mark Twain had put it.
“I never really had a life until all of this happened,” he said. “I was lost and searching. My strength lies in my empathy. … and now, I’m so in love with life!”