For Garrett, Candlelighters have been a very special gift on his journey. Let me see if I can explain how. Garrett has grown up with a childhood diagnosis of Asperger’s, which means he is on the Autism spectrum. While he is very smart, he needed help with socializing with others, which he struggled with. He took classes in school that set him apart from the other kids, who noticed that he was different, and he had very few friends.
When he entered high school, he was back in mainstream classes and really starting to come out of his shell, when at 16 he was diagnosed with brain cancer. Though he was very brave in regards to the treatment, socially Garrett just completely pulled back. He did not want to tell anyone about it, and he let us share with just his teacher’s. The other kids knew there was something going on because he lost all his hair, he used a wheelchair between classes, and he eventually had a feeding tube, but he would not talk to them. He really had one friend, and that was the only person he would talk about it to.
As a parent it was like a double whammy, not only was he very sick, but the social progress he had made over years was gone, and it made my heart break for a second time as he isolated himself. While at the hospital, we saw the many things that Candlelighters does for the families – movies, snacks, gift cards to help with expenses, and every Wednesday night REAL food from the outside world!!
But for Garrett what helped was after he finished treatment. He was invited to go meet other teens who were going through the same thing he was. He was hesitant. He was doubtful it would be any fun. But in the end, he went. And what he found was a group, he had not ever had before – which everyone was equal, because everyone had cancer. No big deal, he was not the odd one out. He was normal, and welcome, and he could talk about it with them without fear of making them sad, without judgement, without pity, and they had similar experiences to share. They could make jokes, and just be themselves, be normal, sarcastic teens, and no one batted an eye. They went to an Escape room, to Indoor skydiving, and to a Halloween party. He went monthly to those activities, and he still goes today. Having that peer group changed something in him!It gave Garrett a group of kids to hang out with and just be himself.
He started talking to the other kids at school soon after, he started opening up a shared what he had been through – and then big surprise he started going out of the house to events with other kids in his class that he had not related to in years. Through these activities Garrett came out of his shell. He spoke at a school assembly about Cancer Awareness, he started accepting help from classmates carrying his books between classes, he was adopted by the football team, attending games to support them, and became an honorary co-captain. He even went to the Prom and was elected prom king!!
Seeing him rejoin the teen world which he had withdrawn from was so amazing and beautiful. I think his chemo helped cure his cancer, but his work with Candlelighters helped heal his heart!!