In what is believed to be the largest single-family charity event in Warren County history, caring citizens have lifted some of the burden for a five-year-old cancer patient and his young family.
Tucker Lewandowski faces weeks, maybe months, of hospitalization far from his Fairview community home. Being away from home and work that long would burden any parents, especially those standing bedside and praying for their child in a critical ordeal.
“This event lifted some of that burden from their shoulders,” said Michelle Dodson, one of the key organizers of the fundraiser last Saturday evening at The Detention, the former Morrison Elementary School.
A standing-room-only gathering with an estimated 600 participants donated more than $108,000 sources closely connected with the benefit agreed. Those sources did not want to be identified in the press, but they independently confirmed the approximate number.
The donations will help maintain Tucker and his parents, Jeff Lewandowski and Alicia Lawson, in Cincinnati as Tucker undergoes daily radiation treatments over seven weeks in February and March. The spunky pre-schooler has been diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, an extremely rare kind of cancer that can strike at any age but most often in early childhood.
“We were camping when we noticed something was going on with his ear,” said his mom, Alicia. “His ear was bleeding and we thought something had gotten into it.”
After examination, Tucker’s pediatrician sent him to specialists who determined last November that he had that exotic form of cancer. That started the process that opened channels for in-patient treatment and management at Cincinnati Children's Hospital.
“Tucker is tolerating his treatments,” his mom said last week, adding, “we feel like we are making progress. We are optimistic.”
Real estate agent and auctioneer Donald Hillis, one of a large team of volunteers who donated their time, talents and energy to the fundraiser, described it as “the biggest benefit I’ve ever been involved in.” Other veterans of such humanitarian efforts, including Randy England, a Warren County commissioner and Tennessee College of Applied Technology instructor, agreed that it was probably the most successful single-focus fundraiser in the county’s history.
“When it’s a child (as beneficiary) it’s more of an emotional event,” Hillis observed.
“Little Tucker has a big personality. He pulls at your heartstrings,” Dodson offered. “We were expecting a lot people, but we didn’t dream it would be this big.”
Jackie Rackley, another leading volunteer, described a tsunami of collective generosity when attendees waved hundred-dollar bills in response to a challenge from Hillis and England. “It was a snowball effect,” she said.
Local businesses donated so many items that organizers had to collect them in large baskets —some 300 of them — to make the auction more manageable. “Things were selling for three or four times their value,” England exulted.
Sale offerings ranged from an Australian shepherd dog that fetched $850 in spirited bidding to a Panama City vacation, Tennessee State Park leisure weekends and tickets to Nashville Predators hockey games, according to Wes Williams, Warren County’s elected register of deeds and another of the prime organizers. The auction started earlier than planned, at 6:30 p.m., and wound down about 10:20 p.m.
“They came out with open hearts and open arms,” Tucker’s mom emphasized. “I was overwhelmingly blessed and grateful. I am so amazed … I was standing there in disbelief.”
Warren countians continue to offer support at other events, including a benefit earlier at Applebee’s and Jalisco Mexican Restaurant. Hillis estimates that those funds, and possibly more, will be needed to sustain the family through the coming weeks and months.
Cincinnati Children's Hospital has operated since 1883 as a non-profit institution and has claimed the Number 3 ranking in US news & World Report’s honor roll of American hospitals.
“I have done hundreds of auctions, if not thousands, in Warren County and I have never seen the outpouring of love and support” on the level of that shown at the Tucker benefit, England remarked.
“I love Warren County,” Alicia said. “I love our community.”