'Play It Forward': Effort provides play set for pediatric cancer patient
By Kim Grizzard
Friday, November 8, 2019
For more than three years, Hayden Drake and his family had to build their lives around cancer treatments. But now a group of strangers has come together to give the 7-year-old a chance to build memories.
All it took was time, teamwork and power tools.
Hayden, who completed treatments for acute lymphoblastic leukemia last month, arrived at his grandparents' house on Thursday afternoon to find a custom-built play set in the backyard. Complete with swings, a slide and a climbing wall, it was a surprise from Roc Solid Foundation and State Farm.
“When kids are diagnosed with cancer, play is the first thing to go. They can't be around other kids because of germs,” said Unique Pierre, North Carolina program coordinator for Roc Solid.
Founded in 2009 by pediatric cancer survivor Eric Newman, the Chesapeake, Va.-based nonprofit has completed hundreds of Play It Forward play set construction projects throughout the country. Pierre said Thursday's build was a first for a patient of Vidant Medical Center.
It was not the first for State Farm sales leader Gary Davis, who decided to bring Play It Forward to eastern North Carolina after volunteering with a project in the Triangle area a few months ago.
State Farm associates raised $5,000 for the project, $3,500 to cover the cost of the play set. The additional $1,500 went to Roc Solid's “ready bags,” which provide essentials for families of pediatric cancer patients facing an unexpected overnight stay at one of five hospitals in North Carolina, including Vidant.
“I kind of fell in love with this idea,” Davis said. “I talked to my team; they were all on board. They did a fantastic job raising the money and then they went a step further to put some sweat equity into it to put this play set together.”
More than a dozen people gathered on the lawn of Thomas Wadford's home near Bell Arthur about 8:15 a.m. to wave and cheer while Hayden and his family were driven away in a limousine for a morning that would include breakfast at Waffle House, followed by a little shopping and bowling. Volunteers including State Farm agent Sandy Frazier of Nashville had four hours to construct the play set before the family returned for an “Extreme Home Makeover”-style reveal.
Frazier has less-than-fond memories of taking two days to help his son put together a play set for his grandson. Still, he was willing to try the process again for Hayden, a boy he had never met.
“I just have a soft spot for kids and things they have to go through,” said Frazier, who coaches girls' basketball at Northern Nash High School.
“I've lost a lot of friends in the last few years to cancer,” he said. “I just know how much they appreciated people being around and helping.”
Having friends and family affected by cancer was something several volunteers talked about as they gathered to introduce themselves before starting the project.
The reason for participating is a little different for Jason and Kendell Schlegel of High Point, who made the nearly three-hour drive to Greenville with their 2-year-old daughter on Wednesday and spent the night in a hotel. Kendell, a stylist for Sports Clips, became interested in Roc Solid in 2018 after one of her customers talked about his wife's involvement with the group.
Since then, the Schlegels have used their days off to travel to more than a dozen locations to volunteer for Play It Forward projects.
“It's a very heartwarming experience when you get to see the smile that you put on the kid's face,” Kendell said. “You spend four hours building a play set for that one moment.”
When that moment arrived shortly after 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, Hayden did not disappoint. Led to the play set with his eyes covered, he was a little hesitant, at first, to approach the big, new toy that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. But he warmed up quickly.
“I'm happy for him,” his mother, Summer Avery, said as Hayden explored behind her. “He and his brother are going to love this. I feel like this will help him get some of his energy back, be able to build back up his muscles.
“It means a lot,” she said. “We are very thankful.”
Hayden, wearing jeans and a blue (his favorite color) shirt that read “I WAKE UP AWESOME,” climbed the ladder to the perch at the top. Then, after checking out the first- and second-story amenities, Hayden told reporters that the curvy, green slide was his favorite feature.
This is not the first time the G.R. Whitfield first-grader has been interviewed. In December 2016, then 5-year-old Hayden made headlines when friends and family members asked for Christmas cards to cheer him up while he was going through cancer treatment. The story went viral, and Hayden received thousands of cards with well wishes coming in from all 50 states and a handful of other countries.
Wadford said that now, as then, the kindness of strangers is overwhelming.
“(It's) the same thing,” he said. “I don't know any of these people, and they just show up, and they're happy to do it.”
Now that Hayden has completed his cancer treatments, Wadford is happy for his grandson to have a new play set to help him become more active.
“(During treatment) they just don't feel like doing anything,” he said. “I'm hoping this will get him outside a little more, get him some exercise, fresh air.”
Pierre said the gift is intended for the family, which includes Hayden's younger brother, Gunner.
“Siblings suffer too. Every hospital visit that mom is at, Gunner's at or he's with grandparents,” she said. “They don't have that normal life either. Just being able to give them both something to do is phenomenal.
“The journey for three years is unbelievable, and it's filled with lows and highs,” she said. “I'm super excited that we all get to be part of a really high mountaintop today.”