"A man never stands so tall as when he kneels to help a child."
- John Barnes
This is typically the time of year where many of us gather around the table with family, eat too much high-carb food and watch some football. Somewhere in the midst of this, however, we take time out to reflect on the things which we're thankful for. For Jacksonville, NC pro MMA fighter Chico Santiago, every day is a blessing and an opportunity to help others. His story is one of inspiration and, as I recently discovered, the same ambition and drive that propelled him toward competition in martial arts is now helping to enrich the lives of many children and young people. 2004 was a rough year for Chico. Some of us like to say that we've had a rough or challenging year, but Chico's experience reminds us how much we should put such terms into perspective. It was that year, you see, that he was informed by doctors that his then four-year-old son Diego had a condition called Wilms tumor, a rare kidney cancer that primarily affects children. Also known as nephroblastoma, it's the most common form of malignant tumor of the kidneys in children. Initially the family was told that with mild chemo and radiation treatments Diego would be okay. But by November of 2004 the treatments were not working and the family was told that Diego only had 6 months to live.
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Chico, understandably, was devastated. He and his family tried hard to find Diego some experimental treatment but nothing seemed to work. After 7 hospitals, 22 doctors, $956,000 in medical bills and many, many chemo and radiation treatments, nothing could stop Diego's cancer. One of his wishes was to be a Naval officer, like his father. The US Navy, with permission from Congress, allowed Diego Santiago to enter the history books as the youngest Chief Petty Officer in history. His ceremony was a large event. His dream had come true. On August 2, 2006, five days after his 6th birthday, Diego Enrique Santiago passed away at home in the arms of his parents.
Picking Up The Pieces
The resulting depression that Chico experienced took a toll on his marriage and his work. After a long 3 and a half years of missing his son and a long deployment in Iraq, Chico decided to do something about this terrible illness and started "InTheCage4Cancer", a non-profit organization aimed at raising cancer awareness and contributions to fight cancer. The organization's name was later changed to "InTheCage4Kids." Chico's philanthropic efforts began at a very modest level. Mainly, Chico would take donations and go back to the hospital where Diego had received treatment. He would bring toys and clothing to the kids. Chico had stayed in contact with some of the families that he had come to know during his son's hospitalization. Brad Williams was a friend that had teamed with Chico to start Combat Club Martial Arts and Fitness in Jacksonville. Because of Brad's ties in the MMA community, he was able to start getting Chico access to go to local MMA shows and pass out T-shirts and other items that gave publicity to "InTheCage4Kids." I recently spoke with Scott "Patch" Baker, a friend of Chico and the director of Operations for the Jacksonville, NC based organization. Here is what he had to say:
Taking Things To Another Level
"I met Chico at a church function and we quickly became friends. Not long after that, I began to volunteer for "InTheCage4Cancer." I started doing a bunch of research because there wasn't much money available. The entire operation was basically being funded through Chico. I knew in my heart that it wouldn't go anywhere unless we started really reaching out to people and doing our homework. Running a non-profit organization can be hard work. I researched what kinds of grants are out there for charities. The grant money for cancer related charities is often gone 10 years ahead of time because of the demand from larger organizations. I talked with Chico and tried to figure out what direction he wanted to take this thing. The pool of people that we were helping was relatively small. We'd go to visit a child with cancer and there would be several other kids there with autism, birth defects, etc.... and we'd try to help them all. We both realized that we wanted this organization to try and help all of these kids. The next thing you know, the organization really started taking off. We legally changed the official name to "InTheCage4Kids." Some local guys immediately came on as sponsors. Some promoters in the fight game have sponsored us. We're now members of the Jacksonville-Onslow Chamber of Commerce. That really helped a lot with community awareness and businesses have been supportive. The next step was finding qualified volunteers because we try to keep our overhead low. Combat Club Martial Arts and Fitness took over and paid all the overhead for us. They provided the floor space for kids to come in and get some training. Our first mission had been to make kids smile and help with some of the expenses for families. When Diego was hospitalized, Chico saw plenty of other parents struggling. They knew that they had other children to provide for and making even the simplest of payments (utilities, phone bills, etc....) was often very difficult. Now, we have two goals. The first goal is to help kids get on the mat and have fun training. Healthy bodies help to fight off diseases better and many of the children love the experience and thrill of training. Developing a sense of self-worth and setting goals are important for all kids, especially ones with disabilities or sickness and the opportunity provided by "InTheCage4Kids" definitely helps with this. The second goal is to help relieve some of the financial burden. We don't give cash to families but we've made a huge push to help give other forms of assistance, gas cards and assistance with telephone bills (some cell phone companies have worked with us to give families phone cards, extended minutes plans, etc...). We've also worked closely with The Ronald McDonald House charity and have helped direct some needy kids there. If there is a charity out there that fills a need we can't, we try to connect them with families in need. Family Support Network of the Crystal Coast has reached out to us and we work with them to send kids and families their way. They provide events and services for the siblings of children with disabilities and serious diseases. Oftentimes these siblings have a lot of pressure on them psychologically as they often have to act as an additional parent or caretaker for their brother or sister. Family Support Network has a program called Sib Shops and they work to offer activities and events for the siblings of disabled kids."
A Charity That People Can Connect With
"This thing has grown rapidly. Almost every person that comes to Combat Club Martial Arts and Fitness, athletes and everyone, end up helping out. The Mayor's Committee for Persons with Disabilities decided to have a parade float and a lot of the local MMA guys assisted with it.. It seems like a small thing but it is that kind of community service that helps a lot. One advantage to being a smaller organization is that a larger percentage of your money can go toward the charitable services. We don't, however, plan on staying small forever. We plan on branching out and getting much larger. We believe that this is a charity that people can really connect with. There are so many people out there that don't give to a charity because they don't connect with it. Usually, for you to give to the American Red Cross, chances are you've had a friend or family member that has had a blood transfusion. Or if you donate to Hospice, it's likely because you know someone that has received help through them. It's just a fact that you're more likely to give to a cause that has more directly affected you."
Support From The MMA Community
"With Chico being a participating MMA athlete, several folks from that sport have helped us a lot. Paco Torres is on our board of directors and others have shown support for us also. They have definitely helped bring more attention to our organization. We've also received assistance from local promoters that allow us to attend their events and raise awareness for the charity. We've been able to branch out in the past few months toward some significant growth."
"One last thing I'll mention is a program we offer that deals with kids that have been in detention home or are at-risk kids. We applied and were granted to be a location where kids can work off their community service hours. When we first get kids in the door here, they sometimes help print the shirts that we take to shows to sell and get funds for the organization. We get them into martial arts conditioning and training. Lots of these kids have a ton of energy but have nowhere constructive to utilize it. The training gives them something to focus on and really look forward to. We have a kid now that, when he first came into the gym, he was a time bomb ready to go off. If he got taken down or tapped out in training, he would lose it and go nuts. We didn't let him quit. We let him roll with good guys and one day a light bulb went off and he decided to try and apply himself and really learn. Today, less than 5 months later, you'd never know it was the same kid. He's a much calmer person now and, for the first time in his life, he's holding a job. He turned his life around and we just recently got a thank you letter from his mother. She says that he's really focusing on improving himself as a person. It's rewarding to see kids stop fighting in school, getting their grades up and becoming well-rounded people.
For more information on the inspiring work that these folks are doing, please visit them here:
Follow along on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/IntTheCage4Kids