Sherry Tucker closes her eyes and imagines her son Zach as a 16-year-old. She sees a hazel-eyed young man with dirty blond hair. He would be tall and lanky, yet muscular. Whip-smart, athletic and with a smile that lights up the room.
“The kind of guy all the boys want to hang with and all the girls want to date,” she says. Sherry catches herself and laughs. “Of course, that's a mommy's view.”
Imagine is all she can do.
Zachary Tucker died May 9, 2006, just 10 months after he was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive brain tumor. He was 8 years old.
July 13 was a particularly tough day this year. It would have been his 16th birthday. So Sherry and her husband, Dirk, went out and performed 16 random acts of kindness. They handed out Panera Bread gift cards, trimmed a tree and baked brownies for neighbors, and gave a little money to a single mom for a night out.
That's how the Tuckers take their minds off the ever-present loss of their child: They do for others.
Less than a year after Zach's death, the Valrico couple started the Giving Hope Through Faith Foundation. The nonprofit assists families dealing with pediatric cancer by sending care packages once a month for a year, providing resources that help with challenges and giving ongoing encouragement. In December 2010, the Tampa Bay Lightning organization, impressed by the charity's work, named Sherry a community hero and gave her a $50,000 check for the foundation.
Since its inception, the all-volunteer effort has raised $640,000 through special events and donations, with nearly every dollar going to the families it serves. The Tuckers use their own skills — Sherry is an accountant, Dirk is an engineering consultant — to keep administrative costs under 4 percent.
To date, 378 families throughout the Tampa Bay area have been on the receiving end of the nonprofit's work.
Sherry calls it “the Zach impact.”
Nothing will bring him back, she says. And nothing will hurry the healing. It took her four years, she says, before the loss wasn't the first thing she thought of in the morning, and a constant gnawing presence all through the day.
The foundation gives her the solace she needs. “Knowing he is part of this ongoing mission to bring comfort to others helps us face the difficult days of missing him. And best of all, we're paying tribute to his memory in a way he would have loved.”
Life is divided into two segments: the before and the after.
The “before” was a picture-perfect family. Sherry and Dirk, high-school sweethearts married 23 years, were raising 10-year-old daughter Lexi and 7-year-old Zach. The Tuckers had good jobs, a comfortable home in the suburbs and a busy life filled with soccer practices, swim meets and guitar lessons.
Then Sherry noticed little things. Her sports-crazy son, a fierce competitor, was having trouble riding his bike and using his left hand. He started dragging his left foot. Is something wrong, son? No, Mom, it's just my sandals. When he smiled up at her, she saw that his grin was lopsided.
Something's not right here, she thought. Sherry got an appointment with a pediatric neurologist. As soon as the nurse saw Zach, she agreed that he needed an immediate appointment for an MRI.
“And that's when our life changed. Completely,” she says. And the “after” began.
Tests showed an aggressive tumor on the right side of Zach's brain. The prognosis was awful. Maybe a year, if they were lucky.
The family embarked on an unknown journey of medical jargon, hospital visits, highs and lows. Though he would undergo surgery and 33 rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, Zach didn't lose his smile or his spirit. His parents even made a game of some of the rigors of dealing with disease. For every MRI or uncomfortable poke of a needle, they would put a marble in a jar. When he collected a certain amount, he got to pick out a gift.
“That was his attitude and it forced us to stay right with him. Falling apart was not an option,” Sherry says. To keep her own sanity, she turned to running, using that time to collect her thoughts and pray. And she began keeping journals, to unload reflections on the day's events and finding Scriptures to give her strength.
Those journals would eventually be turned into a memoir and guide called “Unfinished Love: Walking By Faith Through Pediatric Cancer.” In the dedication, Sherry wrote: “To Zach, thank you for being my hero and teaching me the meaning of life.”
The Tuckers, members of The Crossing Church in Tampa, have a deep Christian faith, “almost to a fault, some people told us,” Sherry says. They both say it was that faith that kept them bonded, and perhaps from becoming another divorce statistic. The chances of married couples breaking up after a traumatic event increases substantially.
From the moment they got the news of Zach's illness, they firmly believed that they would be among the few chosen to beat this monster. God would deliver them a miracle.
“Ultimately, he did,” she says now. “Zach is completely healed and perfect in heaven.” She hesitates, then admits: “But honestly, we had faith he would be healed on Earth.”
Milestone dates are triggers for emotions. Like that first Christmas, when they unpacked Zach's stocking. Should they put it away or hang it up, an empty reminder of the missing part in their lives?
“Why not a stocking drive? We could get friends to fill stockings with gift cards and gifts in Zach's name, and give to children going through what he went through,” Dirk suggested.
That laid the groundwork for the foundation, launched after the holidays in 2007.
With a volunteer corps of neighbors, church members and other supporters, the Tuckers began putting together the care packages. Every month, the contents change: goofy gifts for the patients and siblings, like Whoopee cushions, squirt guns and, Zach's personal favorite, Silly String. Gift certificates to restaurants and retail shops, teddy bears, movie passes, art supplies.
The only constant is a monthly inspirational message from Sherry. She addresses the gamut of emotions that come with the facing pediatric cancer: the fear, worry, anger, guilt and doubt.
With support from fundraisers such as the annual Zach Tucker Golf Scramble, a 5-kilometer run and a soccer tournament, the Tuckers are now able to allocate $1,500 per recipient family each year. That includes $100 in cash to help with some of the extra expenses that drain household budgets during this ordeal. The more money they raise, the more families they can help.
Even if the child dies, the packages keep coming. “Siblings often take a back seat when a sister or brother is sick, and they still need love and attention,” Sherry says. “They are very much a part of this journey, though sometimes that's forgotten.”
Bonnie Woodworth of Brandon is one of the foundation's recipients. As soon as her 3-year-old daughter, Tatumn, was diagnosed with a brain tumor, she began to hear about the Tuckers from other parents. Then she got a call from Sherry, who reaches out in person whenever possible.
“This is a network you really don't want to be a part of,” Bonnie says. “But if you're unlucky enough to be in it, you can find some incredible support here.”
With three other children at home, the monthly care packages — called “Happy Mail” — meant a lot to the Woodward clan. Though Tatumn only lived five months, the Tuckers continued the support after her death. That was especially helpful, Bonnie says.
“A lot of people don't know how to approach you when you lose a child. They don't know what to say or how to react,” she says. “The silence can be awful.”
Now Bonnie is one of about 90 volunteers for the foundation, painting pumpkin banks for the 5-kilometer race's prizes and helping out with the fundraisers.
“The grief is going to be there either way,” she says. “This is just how I choose to deal with it.”
Zach would be driving now. He'd be thinking of college applications and prom dates. He'd be involved in several sports at Newsome High in Lithia.
“Tim Tebow with Peyton Manning's abilities,” is how his father imagines him. Like his wife, he breaks out laughing at his oversized opinion. With Lexi away at the University of Florida, he misses having his son around to watch football games and play catch.
Jake Van Der Luit and Zach, best friends since age 2, played soccer and Power Rangers together. Jake doesn't remember his buddy complaining about having a brain tumor or worrying about dying. Kids really don't talk about that kind of stuff.
“We just enjoyed life together,” Jake, a Newsome junior, says. At least until Zach got too sick, and then he was gone.
He thinks about his friend from time to time. When he imagines Zach, he sees an all-star athlete in a number of sports. He would still be part of their group, most of whom have been friends since their days at Lithia Springs Elementary School.
But what's most important is the lesson Zach taught him, a lesson he will cherish the rest of his life.
“Teenagers think every little problem is the end of the world. But things can always be much, much worse,” he says. “You've got to appreciate every day and what you have. Because you just don't know when it will be gone forever, just like that.”