Last September, Insider introduced you to 9-year-old Harper Wehneman from Georgetown, Ind., who was battling cancer after being diagnosed in 2013 with a Stage 4 Wilms tumor. With “I Want to See You Be Brave” as her motto and mantra, Harper and her family fought the disease with everything they had and were backed by a community of supporters in friends and strangers alike.
While undergoing a final round of chemotherapy and stem-cell transplant, Harper succumbed to the disease; she died on Dec. 30, 2014.
Her parents, Brian and Melissa Wehneman, were candid and open during Harper’s battle, often blogging about the gamut of emotions that come with helplessly watching your child suffer. Instead of being consumed with anger or sorrow, they branded Harper’s passing with #choosejoy and asked anyone coming to Harper’s funeral to don her favorite color — pink, of course.
Brian and Melissa refuse to let Harper’s story be just a passing memory and have committed to sharing her journey whenever possible and raising much needed money for childhood cancer research. On March 7, Brian and his team of 21 participants will shave their heads in Harper’s memory at St. Baldrick’s, an annual childhood cancer benefit that’ll be held at O’Shea’s Irish Pub on Baxter Avenue.
Brian’s goal just a month ago was $5,000. He’s had to increase that goal practically on a daily basis as more donations come rolling in, and as more people volunteer to have their heads shaved on his team, fittingly called #HopeFromHarper. As of this writing, he’s raised $15,400, and the goal is now $17,500.
Brian says he’d like his team to make it into St. Baldrick’s top 10 teams nationwide. Currently it’s at No. 13.
The outpouring of support has been humbling, Brian says, and getting involved with the St. Baldrick’s Foundation has given him something to pour his emotions into while honoring Harper at the same time.
“The past six weeks have been some of the hardest days of my life. Accepting Harper’s death, which we always knew was a possibility but always tried to stay positive, is an ongoing internal battle,” says Brian. “Keeping ourselves distracted has helped some, but coming to terms with going from a family of five back to four, and losing such a bright light in our lives, continues to be a struggle — and likely always will be. The opportunity to get involved with St. Baldrick’s — rallying support and funds for such a great cause and getting to talk about Harper in a way that is positive — is therapeutic. In doing this, we get to honor her memory and benefit future kids who face similar dire circumstances.”
Since Harper’s diagnosis in 2013, Brian and Melissa have become vocal advocates for childhood cancer research, which is often underfunded by large organizations. For example, the American Cancer Society devotes just 1 percent of its funds to childhood cancer, while the federal government allocates only 4 percent of cancer research funding to pediatrics.
St. Baldrick’s focuses exclusively on childhood cancer research across the globe.
“Childhood cancers are different, but often treatment is limited to available drugs developed for adults,” Brian explains. “Sometimes treatments can be so harsh that they cause life-long problems, if they are successful against the disease, or the complications ultimately cause death — as was the case with Harper.”
David Elster, who is the volunteer coordinator for this year’s St. Baldrick’s event in Louisville, says the organization is the second largest grant-making body for pediatric cancer research, second only to the National Institutes of Health. He first became involved in 2011, when his wife, Dr. Jennifer Elster, became a St. Baldrick’s Foundation Fellowship Grant recipient.
They were living in Pittsburgh at the time but have since moved to Louisville after Jennifer took a job at Kosair Children’s Hospital. She was Harper’s doctor.
“I have had a very unique opportunity to get to know Brian and, by extension, to get to know Harper a little bit,” David says. “Her story is a story that needs to be told. I have very little doubt that Team #HopeFromHarper will be the top fundraising team. The Wehneman family has been relentless in their recruiting and fundraising effort.”
David also relates that from the get-go, Harper’s family has been on board to turn St. Baldrick’s into one of the city’s top fundraising events. “They have been a limitless resource and sounding board for our efforts to continue to aggressively rebuild our event and to regain Louisville’s position among the elite city events in the St. Baldrick’s Foundation system.”
Included among Brian’s teammates is his oldest daughter, Cadence. On her St. Baldrick’s fundraising page, she wrote the following:
My name is Cadence Wehneman and I am shaving my head for St. Baldrick’s. Harper Wehneman was my little sister. She was diagnosed with Cancer May 15th, 2013 and fought to the end. Shortly after diagnosis, I donated most of my hair to “Locks of Love.” Harper then was “free of disease” for about four months before she was re-diagnosed with Cancer. About five months later my family shrunk from 5 to 4. No one should ever go through what my family and Harper’s friends went through. No one. That is why I am shaving my head to raise money for St. Baldrick’s. To raise money for Cancer research and to lower the number of people who have to endure losing family members and friends.
Brian believes Harper would be proud.
“Honestly, in the past, I had offered to shave my head, and Harper had expressed she didn’t want me to do it,” he says. “But she always wanted to do things to help other kids with cancer. I’m confident she’s looking down and encouraging us to be brave and do anything and everything we can to help other kids.”
For now, it’s more fundraising, more team building and more sharing of Harper’s story. Despite the harrowing circumstances Harper faced, she remained positive and chose joy. If the Wehnemans can allocate even half of Harper’s strength to others, then at least they know her spirit lives on.
“I gain comfort from knowing that even though Harper can no longer directly benefit from advances in therapy, her life and her story can continue to touch people’s lives in positive ways,” Brian says.
To donate to Team #HopeFromHarper, click here. Brian also is seeking more volunteers to join his team, so if you want a fresh shave and to support a great cause at the same time, consider joining.
St. Baldrick’s will be held Saturday, March 7, from noon-4 p.m., at O’Shea’s Irish Pub, 956 Baxter Ave. The all-ages, family-friendly event is free.