Tristian Vandenberg has witnessed how childhood cancer has affected his 3-year-old cousin.
In less than two months since he was diagnosed with childhood cancer, Jack Baer has lost his light brown hair, and he has grown a bit more "puffy," as Tristian described it. Sometimes chemotherapy saps Jack of his energy, and he isn't his typical spunky self.
Tristian can't wave a magic wand and cure his cousin. But he is making the world aware of Jack's fight as he enters his senior year at Canisius High School.
Tristian, a kicker for the Crusaders, is dedicating his season to Jack, who was diagnosed July 3 with T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
He is spearheading an online fundraising effort through Alex's Lemonade Stand, a national childhood cancer foundation. He is asking for donations for every point he scores this fall and plans to donate the proceeds to leukemia research and awareness.
"When you get a diagnosis of leukemia, everyone feels helpless," said Katie Baer, Vandenberg's aunt and Jack's mother. "People want to do something, but they aren't sure what. This has been kind of a wild ride for our family, and everyone has been trying to find ways to do something that's impactful. This is something Tristian felt like he could do himself, to make a mark. In any situation like this, you have lessons that are learned, and our true takeaway from this is that cancer research is so important, and funding is so vital. Now, it hits directly home for us.
"We were so touched when we found out that Tristian was taking the initiative and working so hard to make all of these efforts happen."
Watching Jack and his family fight leukemia has humbled Tristian. It has also inspired him to make his love of football a vehicle for a bigger purpose.
"It's a great cause, and it's going to help out so many kids," said Tristian, who has verbally committed to play football at Ohio University. "The difference I've seen in my cousin (since he was diagnosed) is insane. Every little dollar will help us find a cure. And it will help people."
'We have a road map'
Jack Baer lives in Philadelphia with his parents, Katie and Brad, and brother, Jude, who was born Aug. 21.
When Jack was born, on Jan. 25, 2015, he immediately became the baby of Tristian's extended family, and the de facto fourth sibling, joining Braydon, who is a freshman at Canisius, and Riley, who is 10 years old.
"He got all the attention in the family, and my little brother, my little sister, we all loved him," Tristian said. "Everyone loved him. Everyone was always around him. The whole family function revolved around him."
Tristian's father, Jimmy, insists that his nephew Jack is more perceptive than the average 3-year-old.
"Both of his parents are very intelligent people, so he's a very intelligent, smart boy," Vandenberg said. "There are some times you can tell how intelligent he is, and what he is aware of, and then there's times when the little boy comes out, and he just loves to play."
Yet, Vandenberg said, while Jack knows something is happening to his body, he doesn't completely understand the illness that has affected him.
According to the National Cancer Institute, T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia is a type of blood cancer in which too many immature white blood cells are found in the bone marrow or blood. Eighty-five percent of children diagnosed with ALL will live for at least five years after they are diagnosed.
"Three years old to five years old is the age where this is typically diagnosed," said Katie Baer, Jack's mother. "He will probably never remember this because he's so young. We're hopeful this is something he never remembers and that it's something he has a full recovery from. We found a statistic, and my husband, Brad, tells me this. In the 1960s and '70s, children were given months to live. Now, with research, there is a 90 percent recovery rate."
Jack's initial diagnosis came July 3, when Katie noticed swelling in Jack's neck and thought it was tied to an issue he was having with his tonsils. However, Katie said, the family pediatrician noticed no signs of illness outside of the indicators for leukemia, which included swelling in the lymph nodes. Their pediatrician immediately sent the Baers to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Katie spent the next seven days at the hospital with Jack as he began chemotherapy.
Jack is currently in the second phase of a three-year treatment plan that involves multiple types of chemotherapy. Katie explained that in the last week, Jack has taken chemotherapy treatments through an intravenous drip, through pills and through a series of shots.
"We have a road map that he has been given," Katie said. "We are following a very regimented process developed by doctors at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia."
Tristian Vandenberg learned of his cousin's diagnosis minutes after he returned to his home in Niagara after an offseason workout in July. A few weeks later, at the Kohl's national scholarship kicking camp in Wausheka, Wis., he met a representative from Alex's Lemonade Stand, and an idea struck him.
"After the camp I thought, 'I can do this. I can dedicate this to Jack. I can get the word out for him,' " Tristian said. "When I told my family about it, I got like a thousand text messages from everyone in the family, saying how great of an idea it was."
Setting goals for the season
This is Tristian's first experience with a serious childhood illness. It has been a learning experience for him, as much as it has been for his extended family.
"It's been realizing what actually goes on with kids who have leukemia, and how crazy everything is," he said. "How everything changes for them."
Tristian set a goal of raising $1,000. As of Friday afternoon, his online fundraising page for Jack has drawn $300 in donations. Vandenberg is asking for either a one-time donation to Alex's Lemonade Stand, or for people to pledge a dollar amount for each point he scores.
He set a goal of scoring 60 points as a kicker this season. He kicked 58 extra points and a field goal in 2017, for a total of 61 points. Canisius opened the season Saturday against WNY Maritime/Health Sciences.
His personal goal is to get the word out about Jack and about childhood leukemia through his own fundraising efforts.
The Crusaders plan to display a banner at each game that highlights the fundraising campaign.
Vandenberg will tell his classmates about his pledge drive when school begins Tuesday.
"There was no time for Tristian to have a pity party about this, or for him to think, 'woe is me,' " Canisius coach Rich Robbins said. "It was kind of that athlete's mentality, where a kid like Tristian, who has worked so hard and who is going to college to play football, thought, 'How can I attack this, and how can I help this?'
"The last two months or so, since his family found out about Jack, it's been difficult. What he's doing and how he's handling this, it's awesome."
Tristian simply draws strength from his 3-year-old cousin as he moves forward with his mission.
"Through all of this, I realized how everything can change, really quickly," Tristian said. "But I know Jack. He inspires me. He's always happy, a lot happier than anyone would realize. And even now, he may be sick, but he's a lot happier than people realize."
To donate to Tristian Vandenberg's online fundraiser: https://www.alexslemonade.org/mypage/1506595