A day like Saturday seemed almost surreal to Tanner Smith. He was back home in Atlanta, playing in the building that was a favorite childhood haunt, against a Georgia Tech team that he once cheered for so feverishly.
“I love [coming back]. It brings back all those memories of going to Georgia Tech games with my dad,” he said last week in anticipation.
His father, Craig Smith, can’t count the times they went to games at Alexander Memorial. Nor can he ever measure the value of spending time with his only child in a place that was raucous and rollicking and so essentially frivolous. A place that wasn’t a hospital.
Craig does, though, remember the refrain between the two whenever they were in their seats.
“Dad, you think I’ll ever play here?”
“I don’t know, son. Maybe, if you work hard enough.”
Saturday, the Clemson junior guard from Alpharetta made his ACC swing through Georgia Tech, bringing with him 8.5 points a game, a middle-of-the-pack team (4-4 in the conference) and, in the audience, several old friends from his playing days at Wesleyan.
The mission Saturday was purely for sport. Not exactly like one last summer, on another visit home.
A day like that one last August was as real as it gets.
For the past eight years, Smith, 20, has assembled bags of small comforts and needed diversions for pre-teen and teenage cancer patients, growing a childhood musing into an eponymous charity called Tanner’s Totes. Mostly, it is a faceless transaction, the bags of goodies distributed to hospitals around the country where nurses hand them out as needed. Just last week there was a shipment to a hospital in Indiana.
Last summer, though, Smith was off season and able to pass out a few of his totes at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite.
In return, he received reinforcement for why he does this off-the-court work and why, he said, “this is definitely something I’ll be doing the rest of my life.”
A family mission
Juliet Veal, who oversees the therapeutic activity center at Scottish Rite called The Zone, witnessed that delivery and many others by Tanner’s Totes. She always has delighted in the reaction of the young patients as they dig into the overstuffed bags.
“It is a huge pick-me-up,” she said, for both the patients and anyone else in the room. “It’s a great thing to watch a child who has gone through so much with a real smile on his or her face, to get a real break for a few minutes.”
The totes have always been designed for an often overlooked part of the patient population. “You can’t give Candy Land or a coloring book and crayons to a teenage,” Veal said.
Inside Tanner’s bags are such items as a dry erase board, puzzles, a few fun novelty items, book light, water bottle, disposable camera. Girls, Tanner said, tend to particularly appreciate the colorful toe socks in their bags; while the boys go for the Nerf football and basketball set. The total value of each tote is around $60.
Tanner arrived at Clemson on a wave of publicity – imagine, a college player who became so moved by what he witnessed while his father was hospitalized, fighting cancer, that he founded his own 501(c)(3) charity.
Tanner’s Totes has carried on steadily, quietly since, supported by donations from around the country and events like an annual golf tournament and an upcoming concert at Clemson. Last year, it collected nearly $30,000. The scope of the charity is spelled out on its website, tannerstotes.com.
It survives, especially during a busy basketball season, only through the involvement of the entire family. “I tell people who think it’s about him that it’s about all of us,” said his mother, Kathy Smith, “about how it has changed all our lives.
“Tanner is the face of this. Craig is more the PR guy. I’m the shopper.”
The Smiths estimate they have given out 1,800 totes to hospitals from coast to coast. They are constantly trying to get the word out about the program to expand its reach, having most recently built a relationship with several hospitals in Indiana. “We’ve never turned down a request for one,” Kathy said.
The venue of his work –the hospital- is one too familiar to the Smith family. When Tanner was just 2 years old, his father was diagnosed with Stage IV non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Tanner turned 3 as his father began suffering complications from the bone marrow transplant he received. While cancer-free, Craig to this day deals with the effects of the white blood cells from the transplanted marrow attacking some of his healthy cells. Prone to infections, his lungs damaged, Craig was a frequent patient.
Gradually, during all his visits to the hospital, young Tanner saw how something small could make a big difference in the day-to-day struggle of a cancer patient – a card, a call, anything that broke the painful routine.
By the time he was in fourth grade, and idea was germinating inside him. In a paper he wrote, If I Had Three Wishes, he wrote:
“My first wish is to own a baby golden retriever.”
(Check. Only Griffey is quite the big dog now.)
“Next, my second wish would be to become the best basketball player.” He specified his plans to go on to Georgia Tech, the Sacramento Kings and appear in the Olympics.
(Incomplete. He made it to college ball, albeit a little north of his original target. The other goals remain elusive, yet he says today, “I want to play somewhere as long as I can.”)
“Finally,” he wrote, “I would like to help people with cancer have a better life. I will make kids laugh when they have cancer. I would like to be like Patch Adams [from the Robin Williams movie] and work hard to make parents laugh with their children.”
(Check. When in sixth grade he wrote again about helping children with cancer, the family looked deeper and found the unmet needs of kids then Tanner’s age. In 2002, he made his first delivery of totes to Children’s Healthcare.)
“You get the felling that Tanner has spent his life thinking about other people,” Veal said.
“He’s always had a lot of empathy for people,” said his mother.
As a side-effect of his charity work, Tanner possesses a healthy sense of perspective that isn’t always evident in the insular world of sports.
Suffering a sprained knee just as the Tigers were getting into the meat of the ACC schedule, Smith is still trying to find his legs.
“Those kids [the cancer patients] go through so much, and I’m just going through a little knee injury,” he said when asked about his condition. “I know I’ll be better in a few weeks and they’re fighting every day for their lives.”
But, then, he had a very mature view of life’s priorities even at an early age.
His fourth-grade Three Wishes paper ended:
“I don’t know if any of my wishes will ever come true, but it’s fun to think about owning a puppy and becoming a pro basketball player. Probably the best wish of all would be to help people smile about cancer.”
“I will make kids laugh when they have cancer.”