SEMO News Service and
LILBOURN, Mo. -- Friday, Sept. 28, 2012, may have started out with gray skies, but for Brendan Wallis, a 10-year-old from Lilbourn, it was all sunshine and smiles.
"He comes in every day smiling," said his physical education coach, Joseph McClarty.
But Friday was no ordinary school day. Like all the other students at Lilbourn Elementary, Brendan was excited about the assembly during which the winners of a school-wide coloring contest would be announced. And from his front-row seat in the school's gymnasium, he had a good view of the green balloons lined up on the bleachers. Below each of the floating balloons donated by Crop Production Services was, attached to the other end of the ribbon, a cup full of treats.
"He has no idea this is all for him," said Shelly Johnson, school nurse, as students filed in to take their seats. "This is all a big surprise."
After the first, second and third-place winners were announced, Scott Kruse, chairman of the 18 Fore Life Foundation in Dexter and principal at T.S. Hill Middle School in Dexter, informed the Lilbourn audience that there was a special, grand prize winner yet to be honored.
Kruse then explained to the young audience and school staff that people who are able to face the day with a smile, despite having cancer, are his heroes, and that one of those heroes, Brendan, was the grand prize winner.
To the sound of roaring applause at the surprise presentation, Kruse presented Brendan with more Cardinals hats and jerseys than the child could hold. And then Kruse described what the Foundation had planned. Brendan and his family were about to take a limousine ride to Busch Stadium in St. Louis, where he and his family would get VIP treatment.
"He's going to go in the dugout, and he's going to go in the clubhouse," Kruse said. "He's going to go places you and I will never go! He's going to have a good time."
As he tried on a half-dozen of the Cardinal hats and practiced his home-run swing, Brendan's grin indicated the good time had already begun.
"Brendan is such a shy boy," said Samantha Bartlett, his mother. "He's super-excited. The community and the school and now this -- we're just really appreciative of it all."
"We're thankful. It's a wonderful thing," agreed Richard Benjamin, Brendan's stepfather.
The 18 Fore Life Foundation, founded in 1999 by Scott Kruse, his late brother Ben, and a circle of friends, now carries the name of Ben Kruse and annually raises funds through a banquet and golf tournament in June at Dexter's Hidden Trails Country Club. Several organizations, including high school volleyball teams throughout the county, also "Pink Up" during October in observance of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, with proceeds from games going to the local Foundation. Those funds are distributed throughout the year in $1,000 increments to patients battling a cancer diagnosis. Thus far in 2012, the organization has bestowed $138,000 to area cancer patients.
Brendan was a recipient of the love offering three years ago at the age of seven. When the cancer returned this year, Kruse decided the organization, with a little help from some very special friends, would do something a little extra for the boy with the shining smile.
Coach McClarty noticed one day that Brendan seemed to wear Cardinals shirts to school a lot, and with that, the idea for the "grand prize" for Brendan began to take form.
"I just thought how cool it would be to get him to a Cardinals game," McClarty said, "so I gave Scott a call."
Kruse soon enlisted some special acquaintances who have come forward to play significant roles in the 18 Fore Life group over the years. Mike Rainey from the Bank of Advance, along with former Major League Baseball player, John Mabry, were told of Brendan's plight. Both have a history of playing vital roles within the Foundation. Rainey heads up the annual Ten Pins for Ben event locally, through which thousands of dollars are raised to benefit cancer patients.
At each June banquet for 18 Fore Life, a special keynote speaker, usually a prominent sports figure with a connection to a cancer diagnosis, is featured. Mabry was the guest speaker in 2010, and Kruse knew he had a cohort in Mabry to help secure the funds and accommodations to make Sept. 28 a memorable day for Brendan and his family.
It wasn't long before the plan materialized. A limo was secured. VIP tickets were acquired, and box seats were awaiting the family's arrival for a match between Brendan's beloved Cards and the Washington Nationals.
"John Mabry is an amazing guy," Kruse said. "He set up all the field activity for Brendan and his family once they reached the stadium. He personally met them at the gate and got them in position to watch batting practice and get autographs."
Brendan met the superstars of his "Dream Team" -- Matheny, Carpenter, Wainwright, Beltran, Molina. Next came a short journey to the Cards' dugout where Brendan hit some balls off a tee. Then, without even the accompaniment of his parents, Brendan was taken to the Cardinals clubhouse where the 10-year-old was suited up in Mabry's signed jersey and cap. He was then greeted by Nationals star closer Drew Storen, who presented him with a signed ball, a necklace like his own, and a cap signed by several key Nationals players.
One of the most memorable parts of the day came when Fredbird escorted Brendan to left field where a golf cart awaited. As the brave little boy from Lilbourn circled the field, fans rose from their stadium seats and cheered him on. After touching home plate with Fredbird, he was led to the family's seats in the Champion Club. From the best seats in the house, Brendan and his family witnessed a 12-2 Cardinals victory. Later, Brendan and his family were treated to an overnight stay with all expenses paid at The Westin, which happened to also house the entire Nationals team.
Rainey, on board from the start, provided the limo. Lids/Hat World provided Brendan with caps and jerseys, and the staff at Lilbourn Elementary School, Kruse said, helped turn a routine Friday at school into a magical journey beyond Brendan Wallis's wildest imagination.
The 18 Fore Life Foundation has already given away more money in 2012 than in any previous year. Even so, there is still a waiting list, Kruse said, and it often seems as if "there's more cancer than there is money."
Nevertheless, Kruse is hoping to see 18 Fore Life give away its millionth dollar in 2013. After all, smiles like Brendan's, he attests, are priceless.