It’s organized chaos. That’s the best way Tanner Smith can describe what the basement at his parents’ Alpharetta, GA home looks like these days. Smith’s non-profit organization, Tanner’s Totes, has overtaken what was once a large game room for he and his friends, since ESPN.com’s Dana O’Neil told the world about his smile-making tote bags in February of 2009.
“I don’t know how my mom is able to keep up with it,” Tanner said, laughing. “I don’t want to say my mom is a neat freak, but she enjoys having things in their place, but that basement is full. It’s organized, but there is Tanner’s Totes stuff everywhere.
“It used to be everything was in a closet, and everything stayed there. Now everything has moved from the closet and it is in this game room. Everything is on ping pong tables, pinball machines, the Pac-Man machine, it’s all in there, and now it’s in another room before that room, too. It started in the closet and everything was organized in there, and now it has moved into three rooms.
“She has done a great job keeping up with it, but it’s a messy organization that she is able to know where everything is. She makes sure when I’m home that I take stuff to the right place and that I don’t move anything around, because that will throw her off completely.”
The overwhelming generosity of the people who have caused this overflow hasn’t thrown Kathy Smith off, nor will it ever. Since Tanner’s story moved across the Internet, the newspapers and television last winter, Tanner’s Totes has seen its donations exceed more than $20,000 in the last 12 months, while the production of the totes themselves has doubled.
For those not familiar with Tanner’s Totes, it’s an organization Tanner, with his parents’ backing, began when he was 12 years old with the idea of catering more to preteens and teenagers who were suffering through long-term cancer treatments. Through a friend who worked at an Atlanta-area hospital, Kathy discovered that the little kids were well taken care of with toys and those kinds of things, but few hospitals had the things preteens or teenagers were interested in.
That’s where the concept of Tanner’s Totes took off. Kathy went shopping and gathered up nail polish and manicure sets for girls and nerf basketballs and footballs for the boys, as well as several other useful items they can take with them when they go to and from treatment.
Kathy now makes a special stop at the Seneca Wal-Mart from time to time as each tote bag also gets a Clemson hat. In all, each tote cost about $60 prior to shipping.
Tanner got the inspiration to start Tanner’s Totes when he was in the fourth grade while writing a school paper, which was set to the topic of “three things he wished for.” The first thing Tanner wished for was a puppy, the second was to be a professional basketball player and the third was to help put a smile on the faces of kids who were suffering from long-term illnesses.
Tanner got his puppy, Griffey – a golden retriever named after his favorite baseball player Ken Griffey, Jr. that is now 10 years old – that Christmas. He is about to finish up his sophomore year as a starter for Clemson’s basketball team, and Tanner’s Totes is now in its seventh year and only getting bigger.
“He amazes us,” Kathy said. “He gets so excited when he hears a group or someone is interested in helping, or if he is going to speak about it. I think it continues to show him that this little wish that he had as a fourth grader is truly, truly from God. It just continues to be reiterated to him that this is what he is supposed to being doing with his life.”
Tanner’s father, Craig, tears up when he talks about how proud he is of his son. Craig knows all too well what Tanner’s Totes means to the people he sends them to. He himself is a cancer survivor, who has been cancer free for many years now, but still suffers from what is known as Graft vs. Host disease.
Because of his dad’s illness, Tanner spent a lot of his young life in and out of the hospitals as he and his mother followed and cared for Craig.
“We’re just a close family, and it is because of the health issues Craig has been through. It has always been the three of us,” Kathy said. “Our faith has kept us strong through all of this, knowing God is in control of all things. I think that’s how Tanner looks at it through life, on the basketball court and in the classroom. He keeps working hard and keeps persevering, knowing God is in control. That’s how we have kind of lived it.”
There were many days young Tanner would go to school, come home and do his homework and then go spend the night at the hospital. At the time that was his life, but Craig said he never once heard his son complain about not being able to do some of the things the kids his age were doing.
Though he was going through the struggles of worrying about his own father’s life, Tanner was still thinking about others and how he could make a difference in their lives.
“There have been a lot of cons that have happened in his life,” said Craig, who handles the paperwork for Tanner’s Totes and makes sure the company stays within the updated guidelines required of a non-profit organization. “There are a lot of things that he did miss out on, but the things he has experienced have made him the man that he is today.”
Today, Tanner’s Totes is booming. The Smiths said they have now delivered more than 1,400 totes and average around 36 totes per month that are delivered to hospitals in Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and North Carolina. Twelve totes are delivered to three hospitals a month, with six going to girls and the other six going to boys. They also take requests and send individual bags to other children in need.
Since O’Neil told their story, Tanner’s Totes has received numerous contributions and requests for totes to be delivered to Arkansas, Nebraska, Indiana, Virginia, Florida, Michigan and New Hampshire. There was even one elementary school in Maine that raised money, shopped and delivered Tanner’s Totes to a hospital within the state.
Just recently, the Smiths shipped off some of Tanner’s Totes to an Army hospital in Hawaii.
“That’s something that I never thought would happen,” Tanner said. “I never thought when I started this, that I would be delivering totes to Hawaii because they heard about it.
“It’s something that is always going to be needed. There is never going to be a low demand for people that need attention and need to know that someone is thinking about them and that’s what is great about Tanner’s Totes.”
Despite being a student-athlete with a demanding schedule, who happens to be a starter on an ACC Championship caliber team, Tanner is always thinking of others. He said the recent tragedies that hit Haiti following the terrible earthquakes made him stop and think that those people need to know others out there are thinking and praying for them.
Though on a smaller scale, he says that’s what people who suffer from life-threatening illnesses need to know, too.
He went back to one testimonial in which a promising high school volleyball player came home from practice one night and complained about her leg hurting. Instead of getting better, it only got worse. Her family took her to the hospital and after running a few tests, they discovered there was a small knot around her knee. It turned out the knot was a tumor and it was cancerous.
She lost her leg, and thus volleyball, the prom, preparing for college – anything a teenage girl likes to do – wasn’t important anymore. The only thing that mattered was that moment. What life is like at that time is all that matters.
“Right now their world is broken, too,” he said. “In a smaller version, it’s like that in a hospital with kids that are going through treatment. When they get that news, their life is put to a halt.
“All of a sudden, everything is put on hold. Those plans that they had for the next day, they don’t matter anymore because they are going to be at the hospital all night making sure their son or daughter is being taken care of. They may not even go into work the next day. Their life, that little part, has affected them in such a great way.”
That’s the message Tanner tries to get out when he speaks at local Rotary Clubs, hospitals, high schools or IPTAY functions. Tanner’s Totes isn’t about him, his mom, his dad or even Griffey.
“It’s not something that is about him or for him, it is for the patients.” Kathy said. “Since his story has come out, he is like, ‘Okay, this is great. We are going to reach more patients now.’ It is not only cancer patients anymore, but it has become any longer-term patient that needs cheering up.
“Tanner’s Totes has been a blessing. This was a little fourth grader’s wish, yet it has touched our lives so much, and all because of Tanner. Of course, as a mom, I just love everything he does.”
The Smiths also love everything the Clemson people do to help Tanner’s Totes.
“What’s been amazing to us is how Clemson has surrounded Tanner and Tanner’s Totes, and have just jumped on board,” Kathy said. “It has been amazing to us. Clemson has made it that way.
“We love Clemson. We just can’t get over people’s generosity and kindness. I think that’s what makes it fun for Tanner. It is never a burden. He can’t wait to speak and get people involved…it continues to show us that he is at the right school. So many people question where their kids go and if it was the right choice. We don’t have to worry about that question, and that just gives us peace.”
Craig says, “He is continually being asked to be a part of the Clemson community, and they just think of him as family. It has really been an incredible experience.”
There are days when Clemson fans, who see Tanner in the streets, want to talk to him about basketball and then there are days when someone has read his story or knows about Tanner’s Totes and all they want to do is talk about that. Either way is great to him, because he loves both the same.
“It has been kind of crazy. The amount of attention Tanner’s Totes has received has definitely increased,” he said. “There is no doubt about that. The platform of Clemson and ESPN’s exposure has put it on a pedestal. It has made us a lot busier.”
Busy enough that Tanner’s Totes has exploded all over his basement.
“We need to get a warehouse, but my mom likes the fact that everything is in the house and she doesn’t have to go somewhere if she suddenly wants to fill some bags,” Tanner said. “The thing is, it can get even bigger and that’s what makes it crazy.”