Garrett Gragg enjoyed a special relationship with his “Grammy,” Ruth Ann Field.
Grandmother and grandson lived more than 650 miles apart, but stayed in constant contact. During video chats and phone calls, they held “joke parties,” exchanging jokes that Grammy found in library books and Garrett found on the internet.
Each year, Ruth Ann traveled from her home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to visit Garrett in Parker, Colorado, for Grandparents' Day at school.
Ruth Ann kept visiting even after she was diagnosed with melanoma in 2008. Whether she felt sick or had to wear a wig, which she hated, Grammy made it for Grandparents' Day.
“She was just awesome,” Garrett says.
Ruth Ann was treated at MD Anderson for eight years before she died in 2016, but her attitude and courage left a lasting impression on Garrett.
“She was such a fighter,” says Whitney Gragg, Ruth Ann's daughter and Garrett's mother. “Even when she was involved in clinical trials at MD Anderson, which weren't always fun, she kept fighting. She didn't know if the trials were going to work, but her attitude was always so positive. Whether or not a cure was possible, she knew that by participating in trials, she could help somebody else down the road.”
When Ruth Ann succumbed to melanoma, the family was devastated to lose her, but Garrett decided to turn the heartbreak into something positive. Inspired by his grandmother's altruism, he wanted to save others from melanoma.
While researching ways to help, Garrett and his mother learned how preventable melanoma and other skin cancers can be. Simple acts like wearing sunscreen or protective clothing, hats and sunglasses can significantly reduce the risk of developing skin cancer, especially in places like Colorado where there are lots of sunny days.
They also learned that some states, including Colorado, don't permit kids to have or apply sunscreen at school because the Food and Drug Administration considers it an over-the-counter drug.
“Well excuse me, but I have one word for that,” Garrett says. “Stupid.”
Whitney began contacting legislators about the need for sunscreen in schools, while fifth-grader Garrett declared it his mission to raise awareness about skin cancer among his classmates at North Star Academy.
The school conducts quarterly service projects each year designed to reinforce core values and build positive character traits.
Garrett suggested to his principal that one of the projects focus on educating students about sun safety.
“The theme for this year's character education projects was compassion, which fit perfectly with Garrett’s idea,” says North Star Academy principal Kendra Hossfeld. “Because his grandmother had gone through cancer, he really wanted to bring awareness to the potential dangers of the sun.”
The project moved forward. Students were allowed to wear protective hats and sunglasses while participating in outdoor service projects on Earth Day, in exchange for a small donation.
The money they raised, more than $1,000, was donated to the Colorado Cancer Coalition.
North Star also brought Ray and the Sunbeatables™, A Sun Safety Curriculum, to its K-5 students. The program was created and developed by MD Anderson researchers through the Melanoma Moon Shot™ and deployed through the cancer prevention and control platform, part of the institution's Moon Shots Program™.
The evidence-based curriculum uses superhero characters Ray and the Sunbeatables to educate children, parents and teachers about sun protection, and promote sun safety behaviors to reduce a child’s lifetime risk of developing skin cancer.
North Star students performed a skit in May for the entire school. They dressed as Ray and the Sunbeatables, and acted out each character's sun-safety superpower to teach classmates how to protect themselves from the sun and reduce skin cancer risk.
Garrett is pleased with the efforts so far, but his mission is not complete. He plans to continue teaching his classmates about cancer prevention.
“Cancer is like one of my number one enemies now,” he says.
Garrett and his mom are working with state lawmakers to advance legislation in Colorado that will allow students to bring sunscreen to school.
Ultimately, they just want to save others from the pain of losing a loved one to cancer.
“That's what Grammy would want, huh Garrett?”
“Exactly,” he says.