In 2007, Kim Anderson’s stepdaughter Blair died following a two-year battle with leukemia.
From the tragedy of that experience, Anderson created an organization called Blair’s Tree of Hope that provides comfort to families whose children struggle with leukemia, tumors, heart conditions and other illnesses that force them to spend long hours in the hospital. The Hopkins-based organization hosed its Fourth Annual Kickball Tournament fundraiser Sept. 24, with accompanying bone marrow drive.
Hopkins Patch sat down with Anderson to find out how it all started.
(Huffington Post has chosen Anderson as its "Greatest Person of the Day"—an honor recognizing people who confront issues in their community with creativity and passion.)
Hopkins Patch: First of all, tell me who Blair was.
Kim Anderson: Blair was a beautiful 16-year-old girl. She was a very creative young lady, very artsy. But family was definitely No. 1.
She was diagnosed at the age of 14 with leukemia. We were told that she had to have the bone marrow transplant in order to continue her life. At the age of 15, she had a bone marrow transplant at the University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital.
Bone marrow was the only way that she could live. Typically when you have childhood leukemia, it is ALL (Acute lymphoblastic leukemia). And for adults, it’s AML (Acute myelogenous leukemia). Well, Blair had both. So when you take those two, the outlook is grim. Her transplant was done on Sept. 30, 2005, and it was a success.
We did have a lot of ups and downs during that time. We almost lost her in January of 2006. But she did beat the odds, and she came out of ICU.
But her lungs became very sick. Blair was a very thin young lady, and she just didn’t seem to have enough to fight. There’s just a lot of diseases out there, a lot of germs out there. On Feb. 6, 2007, something didn’t sound right in her lungs. So the cancer disappeared but her lungs were so weak she just couldn’t do it.
Three days before she passed, she told me, “I just can’t fight anymore.” On a Sunday morning, the doctors called my husband at home—she was in intensive care—and they called us at about six in the morning and said, “You have to make a choice today. You have to either unplug the machine and let Blair go peacefully because she’s not going to live. Or we could be selfish and let her stay on the machine.” Obviously, we made the choice to let her go.
She went through a pretty tough journey, and on March 25, 2007, she earned what we call her pink-and-orange wings. Pink and orange were her favorite colors. So basically what we were saying is that she earned her angel wings.
Hopkins Patch: When did you start the kickball tournaments?
Anderson: Right away, actually. September 2007 was our very first kickball tournament. When you start a nonprofit, everybody seems to do the same type of fundraiser, and most of them are very expensive. We wanted to do (something) family oriented, family fun, family affordable.
And we had such a wonderful memory of Blair when she was playing kickball, right after she had finished chemo. She had finished three months of chemo and it was right before her bone marrow transplant. We went up to Alexandria. My daughter-in-law and her family, have a tradition of a kickball game on Labor Day weekend. It’s kids, adults, anybody who wants to play.
They asked Blair if she wants to play. So here’s this 90-pound young lady, bald as an eagle, and she wanted to play. The doctor told us before we went, “Let her do whatever she wants.” So we did. We said, “Have fun.” My husband Tom and I sat on the sidelines, and Blair got up to kick.
She kicked the ball, and as she was running to first base, her pants fell. Everybody stopped. Everybody stopped. Except for Blair. She just reached down—she had shorts on underneath her pants—ran to first base, finished pulling her pants up, turned to look at my husband and I, gave us this thumbs-up look that has stayed with us to this day because she was so thrilled that she made it—even with her pants falling down.
We didn’t know if she’d run off the field, if she’d cry, that type of thing. But that smile just showed us everything. That’s the smile that stays with us.
Hopkins Patch: When did you start Blair’s Tree of Hope?
Anderson: Actually, we had already started talking about it before Blair got really sick—with Blair—because the things we noticed at the hospital is that the patients are taken care of but the family needs the little things.
With Blair, I would be in her room and not be able to leave until maybe 10 o’clock at night. And at that time, there’s no place open to grab anything to eat. So you’re going to the vending machine and you’re getting a candy bar because you haven’t had anything to eat. Our goal was to work on providing healthy snacks to the families at the hospitals.
Also, (we provide) ChapStick because the air on those floors is very dry. The families, as well as the patients, their lips get very dry and very chapped.
Our goal was (also) to provide updated magazines. When we would go in to wait for her in surgery, we read the same TimeLife magazine over and over. That was probably (from) 1976. So our goal was to provide weekly magazines for the families to read and puzzle books—any books that are up to date and are light reading. Who wants to read TimeLife magazine, really, when you’re in the hospital? We provide People magazine, Rachel Ray, Sport Illustrated, golf magazines, any type of magazines that people are willing to donate to us.
We also do toiletries. When your child is in the hospital, you as a family member do not have access to toothbrush or shampoos or body washes—that type of thing. We have baskets at the hospitals, and we fill those up weekly with toiletries for these families.
Hopkins Patch: This is your first year to do the bone marrow drive?
Anderson: Actually, it’s not. We actually did a bone marrow drive two years ago. When we had it, a young man—Scott Jones—he swabbed his cheek and a couple months afterward received a call that he was a match for someone. He saved a woman’s life. He was a lottery winner. He saved a woman’s life. There’s a huge need. We have a 7-year-old young man, Owen Pilot, who is in need. And we’re all pushing right now. There’s about four different bone marrow drives going to find matches for everybody. When (people) come to our event, it doesn’t cost anything to come in. They just come to the ball field, they find the table for the bone marrow drive, cheek swab, painless.