CANTON, Mass – A child’s death is a club no parent on earth wants to join. And yet, it has no trouble enrolling new members.
According to the American Cancer Society, 4,000 children are diagnosed with some form of brain and/or spinal cancer every year. Of them, 75 percent survive beyond five years.
While many offer a good prognosis, glioblastoma is not one of them. These brain and spinal cancers spread the fastest, and only 20 percent of children live beyond five years, depending upon age, size of the tumor, location, and treatment response. John Feinstein, author and sports columnist, would call it “a good walk spoiled”.
Emotional support is essential for the survivors. However, one of the ignored, most terrifying consequences of pediatric cancer occurs at the very outset of the fight. While their child deals in a hospital bed, mom and dad must balance the crisis with ordinary costs and commitments in a hurried world run by bottom lines and deadlines.
“I don’t think people realize that when a child has cancer, your car still has to be fueled when gas is $3.30 a gallon,” said Helena Rafferty, Deputy Chief of Police in Canton, MA, and President for Cops for Kids with Cancer, Inc. “The gas attendant isn’t going to say, ‘oh, you have cancer, you don’t have to pay.’ The same goes for babysitters, not to mention your boss.”
Connor Heffler of Natick, MA, was 9 when he woke up one morning to find his legs wouldn’t budge. After a few attempts to stand on his own, he realized his legs wouldn’t have it. It turns out he was diagnosed with a glioblastoma.
His mother, Elizabeth Heffler, is a Natick Police Officer, while his father, Steven, is a Supervisor with the Natick Water Department. While doing everything humanly possible to maintain the family’s “good walk”, personal finances were a major battle in their war on cancer.
“We’re blue-collar workers so when I learned about the diagnosis, I was up for twenty-four to forty-eight hours thinking how am I gonna pay my mortgage,” said Steven Heffler. “How am I going to tell my son he can’t play hockey because we have to take care of his brother? So the money from Cops for Kids was huge.”
Cops for Kids with Cancer, Inc. is a 503(c)(CKC) federally recognized charity whose mission is to help families pay for the cost of living during a child’s cancer ordeal. Police from all over Massachusetts give donations of about $5,000 to each qualifying family with children up to age 21.
Cops for Kids with Cancer started when John Dow met Pat Hanlon at a police-organized softball tournament in Boston in 1996.
Softball was an odd game for Hanlon. While born in Chicago, the American citizen spent his boyhood and teen years in County Kerry in the Republic of Ireland. Today he lives in the country’s Cork City.
When Dow and Hanlon met, Dow was Captain of the Boston Police Department, and Hanlon was a detective with the Garda Siochana-Gaelic for “Guardians of the Peace”. Both men found a high-energy sense of camaraderie over Dow’s Irish lineage.
Yet, while gabbing about all things Gaelic, it was competitive golf that forged a friendship – and a force.
Their competitions were stiff. I could tell when Hanlon told me, “I like to win.” After all, what competitors don’t have handicaps? Hanlon’s was a 16, Dow’s, 14. Actually, that’s not true; Dow’s was less than that.
“John enlisted in the Marines and fought in the Second World War where he lost three fingers on his left-hand in the Solomon Islands,” says Hanlon. “To hold a club, he would wrap the empty glove fingers around the shaft and bag straight down the middle. He must have been a very good golfer in his younger days.”
Hanlon and Dow would become the kind of friends who make it a point to visit one another each year, swapping between Dow’s Cohasset, MA home and Hanlon’s in Cork.
In 1998, while sipping coffee after a round at Cork’s Lee Valley Golf & Country Club, Dow revealed he was a lung cancer survivor.
“While he was undergoing treatment, he would become very saddened seeing kids without hair,” explained Hanlon. “It really upset him. He asked what we could do to help these kids and their families.”
What else would two competitive golfer’s do? They created a golf competition to raise money for families experiencing financial hardship from pediatric cancer.
“John and I put our arms around our friends and colleagues, and, after many phone calls, the first event took place in September 2000, Hanlon added. “We decided to call the tournament ‘The Dow Cup’”.
RAISING FUNDS FOR KIDS WITH CANCER THROUGH GOLF
For ten years, Dow and Hanlon would play in the Ryder Cup-like event with teams of 20 switching between countries and courses each year.
“The first Cup was held at Lee Valley,” Hanlon said.“We never lost a game in Ireland and it wasn’t until 2006 that we won the cup at Blue Hills Country Club in Canton, MA. We always lost up to then; I wonder if it had anything to do with beer.”
In Ireland, the Dow Cup was fought on some of the world’s most prestigious courses, including The K Club (previous venue for the Ryder Cup), Adare Manor (Ryder Cup 2026), Ballybunion Golf Club, and Tralee, which Hanlon describes as the most demanding track he’s ever played and “a monster links course”.
In Boston, the Irish faced tough tests at gems like Framingham Country Club in Framingham, MA, Dedham Golf & Polo Club in Dedham, MA, and, again, Blue Hill Country Club.
I asked Hanlon if he could recall any stories about fantastic finishes and “spoiled walks”? It turns out, the only memorable moments had nothing to do with the play. Instead, they were professional.
“While playing in Fota Island Golf Club[in Ireland], my American opponent got a phone call to state that he had been promoted to the rank of Sargent,” says Hanlon. “That made his day.”
In 2002 Captain Dow realized this event was getting so much support he made it a formal organization. As a part of the build-out, the Dow Cup changed to Cops for Kids with Cancer.
Ever since the pandemic, CKC’s fundraising plunged. One reason is that donors were under stay-at-home restrictions, so events like a wing-eating contest or a comedy night weren’t happening.
In addition, the social and political environment cast over 24-hour news and social media networks bruised the reputation of the police. Consequently, Cops for Kids has been collateral damage.
“I think people, in general, see the broader link,” said Rafferty. “We aren’t the official charity of the police force, but we donate to every race, every religion, and every social-economic background. We don’t take a salary because I like giving it to the people who need it.”
Today, Cops for Kids with Cancer has given over $4 million to families and $330,000 to hospitals which isn’t much.
“When you see a child going through cancer, $330,000 may look like a lot of money, but it’s not,” added Rafferty. “The medical expenses are overwhelming, especially when one of the guardians has to leave their job because the child needs constant care and that’s a full-time job on its own.”
And for the men and women in the uniform, it’s not about cash flow; it’s about showing compassion.
For instance, it’s not unusual to see a child’s jaw drop when a convoy of cruisers arrive at their home, all to escort the family to the local station for the check presentation.
It’s not unusual to see 300 police and supporters riding in a “Flight of the Angels” – a motorcade of motorcycles all in the name of raising money.
And it’s not unusual for police and friends to come together for golf outings. In 2002 I played in the first Connor Heffler Cup at Sandy Burr Country Club in Wayland, MA.
At the beginning of February of 2007, Hanlon and his wife, Sally, received a phone call when they learned Dow was not well. They flew to Boston to be with him. Dow passed on February 10, 2007.
Dow started on the police force in 1949 and served for 33 years. According to Hanlon, he was a “Medal of Honor” recipient, a lawyer, and a lover of poetry.
Hanlon, a father of six, served in the Garda for 40 years and is now retired and lives in Cork.
“While visiting him in the hospital two days before he passed, he said to me that he would find a nice par-3 course in Heaven so that we could play in time,” Hanlon fondly added. “He was one of the most inspiring men that I ever met in my life.”
When it comes to Cops for Kids with Cancer, maybe he’ll inspire you too.
On the web: CopsForKidsWithCancer.org