Special to the Arizona Daily Star
It is almost impossible for Kathy and Jerry Zillman to find the words to describe the loss of a child to cancer.
But they have four words that offer hope for victims: Tee Up For Tots. Jerry and his employer, Bill Walker of The WLB Group founded the nonprofit organization when Jerry's daughter Courtney was undergoing chemotherapy for neuroblastoma, an aggressive form of pediatric cancer that took her life at age 4.
"There is no way of explaining what you go through. Everyone grieves differently, and we are trying to make something positive out of this. I think we are really making a difference," Jerry Zillman said. Since its initial golf tournament in 1999, Tee Up For Tots has raised more than $261,439 for research targeting the eradication and treatment of pediatric cancers, specifically neuroblastoma.
Last week the group moved a little closer to that goal when on January of 2002 the Courtney Page Zillman Oncology Research Laboratory housing two organization-funded researchers was dedicated at the University of Arizona's Steele Memorial Children's Research Center.
In addition to research, the organization funnels money into related local charities and provides assistance to pediatric cancer patients and their families, ranging from emergency financial assistance to art projects and bingo nights in the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit. The Zillmans' daughter Jenna, 13, often joins in the volunteer fun.
"We can't take the cancer away, and we know that. But if we can help in a small way and bring a smile to their faces for an hour, that is really heartwarming," Kathy Zillman said.
The Zillmans also have developed a Family Assistance Kit that includes cafeteria vouchers, phone cards, video rental coupons and contact numbers for physicians and other healthcare professionals.
"When we were in the hospital with Courtney, there were many families who were far away from home and who didn't have the basics. This kit helps to get them started and hold them over until they can get other benefits," Kathy Zillman said.
Keri Valdes, manager of special projects for the Steele Memorial Research Center, called the Zillmans' tireless volunteer work incredible and inspiring.
"They are one neat family. Sometimes when a family loses a child, they don't ever want to come back. Others, like the Zillmans, will do everything they possibly can to help other children with the disease," she said.
The Zillmans said they are no less compelled than the physicians, researchers and other professionals and staff members at Steele Memorial.
"Those doctors are a dedicated team, and they work endless hours. Everyone at Steele Memorial became almost like family," said Jerry Zillman, who sees his commitment as a testament to Courtney's life and the efforts of all those who worked to save it.
"Since starting Tee Up For Tots, it has become a super passion: I think it, breathe it and sleep it. . . . This is something that is a part of me now, and I will do it for the rest of my life or until the eradication of neuroblastoma, whichever comes first."
By Loni Nannini