It all started with a toga party more than 10 years ago.
James Ragan of Corpus Christi decided to host the party for his 14th birthday. In lieu of gifts, James asked guests to donate to their local hospital and to MD Anderson, where he was undergoing treatment for osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer.
“James wanted to give back,” recalls Mecklin Ragan, James’ sister. “We raised $40,000 the first year, and as time went on we created a nonprofit called Triumph Over Kid Cancer to really maximize our efforts.”
In the coming years, TOKC would raise $1.5 million with the help of the community, corporate gifts, the now annual toga party and a golf tournament, a nod to James’ affinity for the sport he picked up when tennis was no longer an option following surgery that took 40% of his femur and 20% of his tibia. The funds, matched by MD Anderson, supported the Children’s Sarcoma Initiative, a project that provided startup grants to researchers working on pediatric bone cancers.
“James’ goal was to make pediatric cancer stop with him” says Mecklin. “He started to realize that he may not be alive to see that happen. But he said, ‘We have to continue the work we’re doing to save the next kid.’”
James died in 2014, just months before TOKC started a second project. The foundation pledged another $1.5 million to the pediatrics Genome Research and Sequencing Project (GRASP).
“It was a unique opportunity to utilize MD Anderson’s pre-existing infrastructure for genomic research toward a project focused solely on pediatric cancer, something not being done at other institutions at the time,” says Mecklin. “The goal of the project is to monitor longitudinally how pediatric cancer patients’ tumors grow and change in response to cancer treatment.”
Fast forward to 2018 and a particularly special toga party. This year’s event included a check presentation marking the completion of fundraising for GRASP, the first project completed without James. “It’s been a different few years since James died,” says Mecklin. “It feels like a big milestone for the foundation to have completed this project in a little under three years.
We couldn’t have done it without the support of our incredible board of directors, hard-working volunteers and generous supporters. We wanted to mark that milestone with the people who made it possible.”
Valerae Lewis, M.D., chair of Orthopaedic Surgery and James’ orthopedic surgeon; Winston Huh, M.D., associate professor of Pediatrics-Patient Care and James’ oncologist; Anna Foy, James’ first nurse; and Sam Susser, a member of the MD Anderson Cancer Center Board of Visitors, were on hand for the celebration.
“It’s truly humbling to see people of all ages and backgrounds, those who knew James and those who did not, continue to work together to achieve his vision of a world where children no longer face the horrors of pediatric cancer,” says Mecklin. “It gives pediatric cancer patients and their families hope for a better future.”
The foundation’s work doesn’t stop there. TOKC recently pledged to raise $1 million for a Phase II drug trial led by Lewis that has the potential to treat kids with osteosarcoma with lung metastases ― the same cancer that James had.
“Some of Dr. Lewis’ preliminary research that ultimately led to this trial came from one of the initial grants we provided through our first project, the Children’s Sarcoma Initiative,” says Mecklin. “It’s the kind of trial that kids like James and families like ours hope and pray for every day, so it really feels like things have come full circle.”