GNET: the Gold Network of East Texas

Written by Gina Sue Bradley.

Raising Awarness & Connecting Childhood Cancer Families in Our Neighborhood

“I had nothing to do BUT think,” recalls Heather Rucker of three years ago, holding her seven-month-old Sawyer while he was getting adult doses of chemo and living in the hospital. Sawyer had been diagnosed with Infantile Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia and was initially given only 24 hours to live.

“Sawyer’s diagnosis was rare, and with the exception of an online community, I had no one to talk to about having a baby with leukemia.  It was through online cancer communications that I heard of September’s being Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and I was horrified that I didn’t know. I knew no one else did either. The world was already turning pink for October. I was thinking that there must be something we can do. What can we do in East Texas? I believed East Texas would rally around our cause and our children, if they only knew.”

GNET, the Gold Network of East Texas, was being conceived in those moments.

Certainly cancer reshaped the lives of the Rucker family even though they were no strangers to a challenge.  Heather, who had made her way to Texas from Minnesota, met Carthage native Josh Rucker when they both worked at the Buckle in Tyler.  “Our romance started young, and by anyone’s standards we would have been voted LEAST likely to succeed,” grins Heather. They were still quite young when their oldest child was born; and then he was followed by a sister and then a brother. Josh and Heather later adopted a daughter, and then found themselves fostering three young siblings. A few months into fostering, the court asked them if they would adopt their charges, and during that time they learned that Sawyer would be coming soon! “The fostering season was hard, and it took a toll on our family. At the time, we thought it was the hardest thing to ever go through…and then to have a baby in the midst of it!  But when July of 2014 rolled around, we took a vacation to Galveston. It was our first time to do anything as a large family; Josh and I breathed a sigh of relief that we had ‘made it.’ The trip was wonderful. The kids had a great time. It was the first time the adopted siblings had ever done anything. We were so thankful to survive that first year, and we were so excited to settle down and get to ‘normal.’ Little did we know the bomb of Sawyer’s cancer was about to hit.”

“Childhood cancer is very isolating,” shares Heather. “There are dozens of different subtypes of childhood cancer, and the closest place anyone in East Texas can get medical care is Dallas, Fort Worth, or Houston.” No matter the type of cancer, the children are immune compromised and absolutely unsafe in public spaces. “Part of the reason for having ‘network’ in our name is that the heart of GNET is to find a way to network these families and support one another.”

As Heather pondered on her baby boy, how to network families and raise awareness, she began thinking that a local 5K geared for serious runners and enthusiastic walkers and all children—a real family event—could be a start. “At the inception, I prayed that if this was going to happen, God would have to breathe life into it, because I was in a hospital rocking my baby while he was taking chemo, and I was making phone calls trying to organize the first Gold Run…the first time I’d ever planned anything that big.” As Heather plowed her way through this new terrain, God DID breathe life into it. “There was interest! There was support!”

Along the way, Heather connected with a couple of moms from her children’s school whose own lives had been touched by childhood cancer. Judy Nolley’s daughter Olivia, a classmate of the oldest Rucker child, fought Anaplastic Astrocytoma, brain cancer, until hear death in 2010. Olivia was Heather’s first exposure to childhood cancer. Judy connected Heather with Paula Pinkerton Kimmey, originally from Carthage, who battled Acute Myeloid Leukemia with her son Eric until he was not called to fight any more in 1995.  These three ladies became the official founders of GNET.

However, it takes a few years to obtain formal 501c3 non-profit status, and Heather was ready to make a difference NOW! This led her to Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation. Alex’s is one of the few organizations supporting actual childhood cancer research. Other large organizations give LESS THAN 1% to childhood cancer research. Since 1980, only THREE new childhood cancer drugs have been approved.

As divine planning would have it, Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation was happy to support the first-ever Tyler Gold Run in 2015, and it proved a huge success! GNET then decided to advertise and encourage International Eat Ice Cream for Breakfast Day on February 18, which was started because cancer kids in the hospital often have a hard time eating, and ice cream is a fun way to celebrate any “regular” day and to get other supporters involved. In 2016, the GNET team wanted to add an event to kick off September as Childhood Cancer Awareness Month: GO GOLD TYLER.

“GO GOLD is about kicking off September with awareness that our children are more precious than GOLD. Gold is the childhood cancer awareness color.” East Texas families battling childhood cancer and those lives tragically cut short are honored and remembered as they walk the GOLD carpet. “GOLD lights are everywhere; our hero kids wear special shirts. There is Kona ice, music, face painting, a photo booth, and other kids’ activities.” This year’s GO GOLD lights-up the downtown Tyler T.B. Butler Fountain Square on August 31 from 6:30-9:30 P.M.

“Our team is constantly watching social media and listening through word of mouth to find other East Texas families touched by childhood cancer in order to reach out and connect with them, just to offer support and to let them they are not alone—all of this alongside prayer, of course,” says Heather. “HIPAA and privacy laws can make it difficult for us to find one another.” But Heather is not afraid to hand her card to every health care provider she meets and give them permission to share all about Sawyer.

This year’s third annual Tyler Gold Run, on September 23, 2017, boasts the first Run that GNET will officially get to sponsor as a bona fide 501c3 non-profit!  People can participate in the chip-timed run, or enjoy the untimed family fun run, or just push their strollers along the trail.  Gold Dreamers are those who simply donate but never have to break a sweat or put on tennis shoes!  Also included in the event are a Children’s Dash, kids’ activities, and of course a lemonade stand supporting Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation. Every year the Gold Run gets bigger and better and brings GNET ever closer to its goal of being able to assist and support families impacted by childhood cancer.

The year 2017 has been pretty golden for three-year-old Sawyer and his family. He finished chemo and had his port removed because, as he says, “Jesus healed-ed me!”  Sawyer has become big brother and very proud caregiver of a baby sister. The Ruckers have had ice cream for breakfast, and they have been gearing up for GO GOLD and the Third Annual Tyler Gold Run.  Heather simply states, “The only way we have made it through our journey—marriage, fostering, adopting, and cancer—is by the grace of God, the healing mercies of our Savior; and that is the heart of GNET. We pray for God to open up doors for us to be a blessing to others.”

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