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LAKE WYLIE --
From a small, lakefront garden grows something that time, season changes and even disease haven’t withered.
Lannette Conder spends time tending that garden, a memorial to her late son Dakota Gay. It’s been five years since Dakota lost his fight with brain cancer. It’s been nine years since his community first rallied around his diagnosis.
But they’re still rallying and still growing.
“He knew what his destiny was,” Conder said of Dakota, who lost his father to brain cancer, too. “He never ever gave up hope, but he was the one who talked about all the things he wanted people to continue to do in his name.”
Dakota’s fight became the cause behind an annual fall fundraiser that now helps other families facing pediatric cancer. On Sept. 23, the concert returns for its 10th lakeside date, this time helping Lake Wylie resident and leukemia patient Luke Moore, 3.
It started as the Justin Mychals Child Cancer Benefit, named for a since relocated resident who spearheaded the effort. This year, mostly the same volunteers work beneath the Lake Wylie Children’s Charity banner. The events began because organizers knew Dakota and wanted to help. They continued because, given the numbers and stories learned, planners just couldn’t stop.
“They decided that they wanted to make it a foundation,” said Chris Allen of Tega Cay, father of 2004 recipient Asa Jay Allen.
In all, there have been 11 children the charity has helped. They’ve varied in age, hometown and medical outlook. Mackenzie DeCuir of York wasn’t quite age 2 when she and Shalazia Rhinehart of Rock Hill shared the stage in 2009. Dakota was 12, and Karlee McManus of Chester was 11 back in 2005.
They’ve been horseback riders and butterfly chasers. They’ve been football fans. One year, they were brothers.
Nicholas and Nathan Cooper of Dallas, N.C., or “Bubba and Tater” to their parents, fought the same bone marrow disease before their 2010 event. The boys were ages 7 and 4.
“We’re one-of-a-kind,” said mom Christy Cooper. “It really stood out to a lot of people, because you just don’t see that.”
The Belmont native is looking toward February when she can use the word “cured” for Nicholas. Nathan is “making progress.” Transplants have gone well, and the family is finishing its first “almost normal summer” in five years, the mother said.
“We’re enjoying some normalcy in our lives,” she said.
Outcomes haven’t always been the answered prayers lifted by recipient families. Dakota lost his fight with brain cancer in January 2007 at the age of 15. Organizers lost touch with Rhinehart, finding out just last year that she died shortly after her 2009 event. Asa died just months after his event at age 3.
“I cherish the memory of it,” said dad Chris Allen. “Those three years were one of the best times of our life.”
But there are successes, too. Doug Kiser, dad of last year’s recipient Dylan, said his son is on to a new challenge. He started at Sullivan Middle School in Rock Hill this year.
Karlee is a senior in high school and lives in Chesnee. Her Facebook page describes a “woman who fought back and won,” and a bride-to-be. Mom Crystal Jewett said Karlee still has annual check-ups and had both hips replaced, but otherwise looks toward a bright future rather than a cancerous past.
“She’s kind of moved on from it,” Jewett said.
For the Kisers, it’s a blessing to be able to look out a week or more at a time. Dylan was 10 at his benefit last fall with a leukemia diagnosis. He’s taking oral chemo daily now, and has blood work every other week. Doug, the Fort Mill sign and printing company owner, is glad to have the family of five concerned with a new school year and other such “typical” challenges.
“We’re all doing fine,” he said. “We’re getting used to it.”
Annually, tens of thousands of dollars are raised to offset medical costs. Yet as the benefit crosses its decade milestone, it isn’t celebrated just for the legacy it leaves with families. There also is a legacy passed from one family to the next. Several have returned to help with future benefits. Ashlyn Hunter, 2007 recipient, has taken to the stage to perform. Asa’s sister, Zoe, is involved with a support organization for cancer patients and siblings.
Then there’s Dakota. Each year family and friends host an anti-cancer bash where hundreds come to ride boats and shoot silly string at one another. The Conder home becomes a safe haven for children fighting cancer and their caregivers. Conder often stands just beside her son’s memorial garden as water balloons or fireworks fly atop her lawn.
She can’t be angry or restless about her past given “the happiness that it is.” Something her son made sure of while he was here, and in a way still does.
“There’s just no way to describe how much I love that this is Dakota’s legacy, that this is the result of his life, that it just keeps going on,” Conder said.
Where are they now?
A quick look at the past recipients and what they or their families are doing now:
2003: Dakota Gay
Dakota lost his fight with brain cancer in 2007 after serving as the face for many local events to raise awareness of child cancer. He was a member of Charleston-based Courageous Kidz, a support group his family partners with each year to bring busloads of children to Lake Wylie and Carowinds.
2004: Asa Jay Allen
Asa died shortly after his 2004 event at age 3. His family still lives in Tega Cay and continues to help with other fall benefits. Sister Zoe remains involved in Camp Care, a support group for children with cancer and their siblings.
2005: Karlee McManus
Karlee now lives in Chesnee, where she’s a senior in high school. Mom Crystal Jewett said Karlee has had both hips replaced and has annual check-ups. According to her Facebook page, Karlee became engaged earlier this year to Clover native Joey Weaverling.
2006: Sarah Burchfield
Sarah will soon turn 10 years old and still lives in Lancaster. She’s in fourth grade and continues the “rest-of-your-life” battle, said mom Patricia. Sarah has lingering issues from the chemotherapy that require therapy, but December will mark three years cancer free. “As long as we’re cancer free, I don’t take anything for granted,” her mother said.
2007: Ashlyn Hunter
Ashlyn still lives with her family in Indian Land. She’s performed on stage at Lake Wylie’s benefit concerts since her event, when she was 10 years old. She’s cancer free now at 15.
2008: Julia Nesbitt
After five years of treatment, Julia received the news that she was cancer free. Her family began a support and awareness group called Julia’s Rainbow Fund that hosts fundraisers and other events. According to juliasrainbow.org, the goal of the group started by the Wesley Chapel, N.C., family is to help other families and “to be the voice of hope and survival when they are in their darkest hours.”
2009: MacKenzie DeCuir and Shalazia Rhinehart
Benefit volunteers learned last year that Shalazia died shortly after her benefit event. MacKenzie continues treatment, and her family remains involved in fundraising. This summer they hosted the fourth annual golf tournament in Mackenzie’s name, which helps offset their and other family medical bills.
2010: Nicholas and Nathan Cooper
Nicholas Cooper is counting down the months to when his mother can call him “cured.” Brother Nathan continues treatment. The Dallas, N.C., family made it through transplants and treatment for the bone marrow disease shared by the boys, and just finished the first relatively normal summer in years.
2011: Dylan Kiser
Dylan began middle school this year in Rock Hill. He and his two brothers are doing well. Dylan is taking oral chemo daily and having blood work every two weeks. The family hopes for a full recovery.
Want to help?
The 2012 Lake Wylie Children’s Charity Concert will be held Sept. 23 near T-Bones on the Lake.
Before the Sept. 23 event, the 2012 LWCC Poker Run will be held Sept. 15 with registration beginning at 11 a.m. at Sweetwater Bar & Grill on Charlotte Highway. All vehicles are welcome. Cost is $20 per vehicle and $5 per extra rider. Stops include Sweetwater Bar & Grill in Lake Wylie, McKoy’s Smokehouse and Saloon in Charlotte, Tavern on the Tracks in Charlotte, Mac’s Speed Shop in Steele Creek and final stop at T-Bones on the Lake.
For more information, visit lkwchildrenscharity.org.