It was an unusual sight on an unseasonably cold April morning in Columbia: teams of 10-12 people taking up a thick rope and straining to pull a 50,000 pound fire truck, with the goal to move the truck 50 feet as quickly as possible.
The larger goal was to support the nonprofit Curing Kids Cancer by raising awareness and money for the Cancer and Blood Disorders Clinic at Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital. But why pull fire trucks? Grainne Owen, co-founder and executive director of Curing Kids Cancer, said the answer was simply symbolism. “The idea of pulling a fire truck like this with a team of 10 people is pretty amazing, and it’s directly pulling for the children.”
Owen remembered the exact moment she decided to start the nonprofit. It came after her son, Killian, was diagnosed with leukemia.
“When he was very ill, we discovered that there was a drug that might have saved his life, but the doctors told us they didn’t have the money to get it into treatment,” she said. “It was right then I decided I couldn’t let that happen to other families.”
She and her husband, Clay, founded Curing Kids Cancer in 2005, and the charity has raised more than $8 million dollars since, including $1.2 million in 2015 alone. Killian died at the age of 9, but his mother said he is anything but forgotten.
“Really, this is his legacy,” she said. “Everybody here today is pulling on his behalf. What he went through is resulting in changes and hope for all the other children that are being treated right now.”
The third annual Pull for Curing Kids Cancer was the biggest yet, with 28 teams participating, each on behalf of a child in treatment or in memory of a child lost to cancer. Many others came to watch, and with vendors selling food and drinks, games available for all to play, and musicians from Richland Northeast High School providing entertainment, the atmosphere was that of a celebration.
The University of South Carolina’s equestrian team, the 2015 national champions, split into two teams for the pull, representing Lily and Aodhan, two kids currently battling cancer. Lily loves cats, and her team dressed as cats in her honor. The ladies then showed that size does not matter, pulling the truck with ease and speed.
The Gamecocks’ golf team also took part, along with the Richland Northeast baseball team (on behalf of their classmate, Anna Price), the Columbia police and fire departments, the USC police department, and others. Rivalries were put aside as all joined in the friendly competition to support the cause, and Clemson University’s fire department also sent a team.
Palmetto Health Foundation Board Chairman Bill Duda pulled alongside a team of others from Palmetto Health including Foundation President Samuel Tenenbaum.
“Curing Kids Cancer supports children’s heath right here and supports us at Palmetto Health, and of course we wanted to come out and support them,” Duda said. Things like this really do two things. They raise awareness, number one, for kids’ cancer, which is a huge issue here and throughout the country. But then we want to be here not only to raise awareness but to raise money. At the end of the day, it takes money to get things done, and that’s part of the event today.”
The Columbia Fire Department took home the first and second prizes for fastest pulls, while the Cavaliers for Anna team from Richland Northeast won the 12-person team category (open to those under 18 and to all-female teams).
Team Nicholas was the top fundraising team, followed by Equestrians for Lily, and organizers said the event brought in approximately $22,000 for the Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders.
Owen fought back tears as she spoke of the reason she and her family work year round to run events like the fire truck pull.
“To me each of the children is my child,” she said. “I can see him in every single one of them. It represents him and it represents all the children that we know are out there out there fighting every day. It’s so tough on them.”
She added that she believes progress toward saving more of those lives is being made. “I feel like we are funding the future of cancer treatment, and there is so much hope now that there was not 10 years ago.” More information on Curing Kids Cancer is available here.