By Jeff Ruby
Kathleen Casey was in a hospital room in 1992, watching her eight-year-old son, Barrett (called "Bear"), struggle with kidney cancer, when a little friend came in to play. "He didn't have family members with him," Casey recalls. Bear gave his toy truck to the boy, and something clicked in Casey's head. "We had friends that were dropping by to bring us sandwiches or coloring books, and we appreciated those little kindnesses," she says. "But so many kids didn't have anyone to do it."
So Casey, a graphic artist, and her son formed Bear Necessities, a foundation dedicated to improving the lives of children with cancer. Months later, Bear died. Bear Necessities did not. From a tiny operation based in Casey's Algonquin kitchen, it grew into a fundraising juggernaut, headquartered now in Chicago's River North neighborhood, with annual revenues last year of $1.25 million and a full-time staff of six supplemented by 500-plus volunteers. (A new staff member is Bear's 25-year-old sister, Courtney, who, says Casey, is eager to "play her part in making her brother's dream a reality.")
This year, the organization's annual Bear Tie Ball—February 23rd at the Field Museum—is expected to raise more than $1 million, about half of which will fund grants to doctors and hospitals across the country who are engaged in pediatric cancer research. "These young doctors essentially have the cure in their hands," Casey says, "but there have been so many huge government budget cuts that they really need the dollars we're providing."
The other half of Bear Necessities is the Small Miracle Program, which fulfills requests (valued up to $500) from ailing kids. Some children want a limo ride to a Cubs game. Others get an Xbox 360 or, in one instance, a personal meet-and-greet with the country-music star LeAnn Rimes. One child simply wanted to go to the prom; another wanted to try surf and turf. "We had a young boy who really wanted to see Harry Potter, but there was no way the doctors were going to allow him in a crowded movie theatre," Casey recalls. "So one of our volunteers talked a movie theatre into opening its doors at 10 a.m. for a private showing. They opened the concession stand and everything. It takes so little to make these kids happy."
Now in its 15th year, Bear Necessities teams up with eight major Chicago hospitals to ensure that more kids with cancer have the chance to receive a Small Miracle. Later this year, a Small Miracle Program hopes to launch in Houston; other cities may be next. Meanwhile, the kids are living up to Bear's legacy. Most recently, Casey, who is 49, saw a boy who beat cancer grow his red hair down to his shoulders so he could donate it as a wig for another patient. "Every day I meet a new child that inspires me," she says. "Their will to live is amazing—and if you can't use that as inspiration, I don't know what it would take."