Girl's battle with cancer inspires father to give back

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Sandra Marrero
  • 23d Wing Public Affairs
Through the generosity of his late daughter, along with the support of others, a father found inspiration to make a positive impact in the lives of others.

When U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Benjamin Pitts' then six-year-old Elizabeth was diagnosed with a brain tumor in October 2006, he felt disheartened.

"Of course you have the initial diagnosis," said the 23d Wing Plans, Programs and Inspections superintendent of exercise and wing evaluations. "It's like, if you could imagine, someone holding a completely inflated balloon and letting it go. It really takes the breath out of you."

Upon her initial diagnosis, Elizabeth was sent to a children's hospital in Macon, Ga. The cost of the trip was more than they could afford, but with the help of a charity, the Pitts were able to stay in Macon with their daughter.

In 2008, Elizabeth received a second cancer diagnosis. This time it was Leukemia. Shortly after, she received treatment at a children's clinic in Jacksonville, Fla. Once again, Pitts and his family relied on the help of charity organizations, friends and family members. He said his housing and meals during Elizabeth's stay in Jacksonville were provided to him through donations.

"You talk with them, you cry with them, and you build a relationship," said Pitts. "There were always volunteers around."

The first time Elizabeth was in the hospital, friends and family visited with teddy bears as gifts to make her happy. Pitts said their small room in the intensive care unit soon became full of the stuffed bears.

Despite facing her own problems, Elizabeth noticed that some children weren't as fortunate as her, so she shared her gifts with others.

"Being in a hospital, you see the entire range of the population from the people who don't have anything to the people who have an abundance of things, and my daughter had an abundance of teddy bears," said Pitts. "So she decided to give the extra teddy bears to all the kids who didn't have anything."

Pitts said he and Elizabeth went around the hospital with a red wagon, giving stuffed animals to children who did not have any. Whenever she celebrated a birthday, Elizabeth did not ask to receive presents. Instead, she requested her friends donate teddy bears.

"One year, we had 1,500 teddy bears that we collected, and we distributed them to all the firehouses and the main ambulance service in town, so they always had a steady supply of teddy bears from my daughter," said Pitts.

His daughter's example motivated Pitts to take action. He and his family started a grassroots charity that helps families dealing with pediatric cancer get the financial resources and emotional support they need.

"Had it not been for my daughter's generosity and her faith in people ... it probably wouldn't have gone too far," said Pitts.

In addition to his charity work, Pitts donated to the organization that once gave his family meals to eat and a place to stay. With his former unit, the 723d Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, he collected two weeks worth of kitchen utensils and supplies, and subsequently collected another 30 days worth with the Air Force Sergeants Association.

Pitts and his family also offered their support to Master Sgt. Doug Giltner, 347th Rescue Group evaluator flight engineer, whose son was diagnosed with leukemia as well.

"It's a big experience--not one that anyone should ever have to go through, but if you do have to go through it, you certainly shouldn't have to go through it alone," said Giltner.

"The truth is a grassroots organization won't be able to cure pediatric cancer," said Pitts. "But what we're looking to do is help the children and the families that are affected by pediatric cancer and make their lives a little bit easier."

For Giltner, the encouragement he received from Pitts was impactful.

"It lets me know that tragedy is there, but you can get through," he said. "There are people out there who support you and help you."

Although Elizabeth passed away in July 2010, her memory lives on through the charity.

"We want other people to know Elizabeth. We want other people to know what a cool kid she was. She was very generous, loved everybody," said Pitts.

Although he recognizes that his charity will not cure pediatric cancer, he hopes to contribute to the cause by creating awareness.

"Eventually, if we raise enough awareness ... money starts getting put toward a cure. That's the end result [I hope for], a cure," said Pitts.