Betty Draper, move over. Nuclear family housewives no longer have the monopoly on bake sales, and bake sales are no longer the cute low-budget enterprise of PTA moms (who in and of themselves are a force to be reckoned with). Gretchen Holt-Witt has turned the concept of housewives and bake sales on their heads, while proving that a single person can, indeed, make a huge impact. “It’s better to try than not try. Why wouldn’t you try?” she asks, and she would know.
It has been almost a year since Gretchen lost her son Liam to pediatric cancer, but three years since she started Cookies for Kids’ Cancer, a non-profit that generates hundreds of thousand dollars for pediatric cancer research through simple bake sales across the country. It all started with an ambitious idea in 2007, to bake 96,000 cookies (that’s 8,000 batches). It took 18 consecutive days and nights and 2 kitchens (also consecutively, as the ovens in the first one broke), but Gretchen and her team of bakers not only succeeded, they raised over $420,000 in the process.
While initially there were many who doubted whether Gretchen could make it happen (and what great idea has not had doubt cast on it at some point), by the following September she and her husband were launching Cookies for Kids’ Cancer as a non-profit organization. During the previous year’s bake sale their son had been cancer free and it seemed he had beaten the disease. However, the summer before the launch the cancer came back. Instead of faltering in their plans, Gretchen and her husband, who ran and still run the organization in the evenings after coming home from their full-time jobs, went ahead full force. In fact, they had a month’s worth of cookies ordered by Lord & Taylor, which sold out within about 3-4 days.
“I still work full time because I could never feel comfortable drawing a salary from the organization,” says Gretchen, who devotes her time wholeheartedly to the organization not just for her son’s memory, but for every child battling cancer. The cause is a difficult one to get media attention for, because it is such a frightening one to people. While Liam was in treatment, one of his doctors said the following to Gretchen, and it was what planted the seed of her immense devotion to fundraising: “Part of the reason why pediatric cancer doesn’t get the attention that it needs and it deserves is because kids don’t make headlines. Because nobody wants to talk about a kid who has pediatric cancer, it’s just too scary.” This lack of attention contributes greatly to the lack of funding.
According to Gretchen, “it’s not science that’s holding up progress, it’s funding. And that’s putting a price tag on a child’s head.” Cookies for Kids’ Cancer grants in $100K increments, because that is the basic amount it takes to get a project up and running so it can then apply for federal grants. Children today are still receiving treatment that is decades old, because funds would hold up shifting to more sophisticated treatment methods and deny children access to any treatment for several months. Gretchen’s brilliance is in her ability to pinpoint the problem that needs addressing and pursuing it head-on.
Liam was diagnosed with pediatric cancer at the age of 2. His battle lasted 4 years but the mark he left continues to grow. Whether people knew he was a cancer patient or not, his love and openness seemed to touch everyone he met. At his memorial service, his mother’s eulogy ended with the words “love like Liam,” which is now the motto of Cookies for Kids’ Cancer. While Liam inspired the organization, however, it is for everyone. “Cookies for Kids’ Cancer is not the Liam Witt foundation, and it’s not about Liam or his cancer, it’s about all children everywhere with every kind of cancer. And it’s really important to both me and my husband that it … not be about my son, because every child, whether or not they’re dealing with cancer gets the short end of the funding stick when it comes to pediatric cancer,” says Gretchen.
The amazing thing about Cookies for Kids’ Cancer is the simplicity of the idea behind it and the immense impact it has made. Gretchen has taken the NPR fundraising model (you know, where you make a donation and get a tote bag as a gift) and honed the craft of a bake sale down to an art. She recognized that in the same way that people would not pay $50 for a tote bag, but would gladly accept it as a gift to support public radio, they would also be happy to pay larger sums for cookies that are baked for a cause than at a for-profit bakery. The cookies sold at bake sales are not priced, giving sweet-toothed customers everywhere the option of not only indulging to their wallet’s content, but making a tax-deductible donation while they’re at it. Many people didn’t even accept cookies at the first bake they just wanted to contribute.
Eventually Glad (you know, tupperware and baggies) sought them out to partner up when they were looking for a cause to support. That’s a long way to go from a simple idea for a bake sale, let alone an ambitious 8,000 batch one. “I keep doing what I’m doing … because it’s there. It’s within our reach,” says Gretchen, adding, “the thought that we can make a difference, and we can make an impact, is crazy. But the reality is that we are, we can, and we will continue.” She doesn’t take the money donated lightly, either. “It’s a huge responsibility to make sure that you are good shepherds of somebody’s hard earned money that they’re sending to you, and we take that so seriously.”
Liam’s memorial was attended by close to 900 people. Next week, on January 24th, will be the first anniversary of the end of his battle with cancer. Cookies for Kids’ Cancer will be announcing their special plans for Valentine’s Day, which will be the first anniversary of his memorial. His parents chose Valentine’s Day for the service because it seemed so appropriate for Liam. “Liam was just such an amazing child who led life guided by the principle of love,” says Gretchen, and after speaking with her I can’t help but feel he must have learned it from her. This strong, resilient woman is the embodiment of inspiration. She has taken an unfathomably difficult experience and used it as fuel to work tirelessly to save the lives of as many others as she possibly can. Like a mother who lifts a car to protect her child, she is filled with a fire and energy on behalf of not only her own child, but children everywhere. All she asks in return is that we be good cookies and do our part, whether it’s baking, partaking, or both.
If you would like to organize a bake sale, you can do so HERE.
Women Working to Do Good is a series that Hello Giggles and the White House have been collaborating on. We will bring you stories of women in communities across the United States who we think are stars in their own right. Whether they are young entrepreneurs, active community organizers, or making a difference in a single life or community, we think these women are amazing and want to share their stories with you! Each story will also be featured on the White House blog, and we are working together to bring more strong female role models to the forefront.
If there is a woman in your community who you think should be honored in this series, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org!