Toting Joy - Kennesaw State University Athletics
Tanner's Totes Website If you could have three wishes what would they be? A very common question, and the topic of Kennesaw State men's basketball assistant coach Tanner Smith's fourth grade paper. His first two wishes? Fairly typical for most kids his age, play professional basketball and own a golden retriever. But his final wish? Make kids with cancer laugh. An altruistic goal for such a young kid, but one that was dear to Smith's heart. In 1992, when he was just two years-old, his father Craig Smith was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. The Alpharetta, Ga., native then moved to Omaha, Neb., with his family for treatments with Craig Smith eventually receiving a bone marrow transplant. Now healthy and cancer free, the Smith family returned to Georgia and enjoyed a much-deserved reprieve from hospital life, until misfortune struck again. Smith's white blood cells began attacking his body in what's known as Graft vs. Host disease, a disease that would go on to disable him. By the time Tanner was 12 years-old, his father had regularly been in the hospital three to four times a year. Determined to ease his father's hospital stays and the stays of pre-teens and teenagers dealing with long term treatments, Smith was inspired to begin Tanner's Totes. "I asked my dad what he wished he had as far as going through treatments and he said it would be nice to have a bag because you're going from treatment to treatment, but I didn't want to just give a bag so we talked about putting things in the tote," said Smith. Using a cleared off ping-pong table in his basement, Smith and his parents assembled their first delivery of Tanner's Totes. The tote, filled activities and toys such as colored pencils and pads, Uno cards, silly putty, nerf balls and much more, was designed to make each teen's extended stay in the hospital a little more bearable. "The tote bag is just to help them know that there are people out there that might not know them that are praying for them and care about them," said Smith. "But it's also just for a couple minutes to be able to kind of forget where they are, take your mind off it and hopefully keep you busy as you are doing your treatments and staying in the hospital for extended periods of time."
Since making his very first delivery in 2002, Tanner's Totes has grown exponentially, shipping over 17,000 totes coast-to-coast to more than 70 hospitals across the country. With that growth, Smith has moved out of his basement and now operates out of a family-friend's warehouse. The space has allowed Tanner's Totes to grow larger and ship more and more totes across the country. And that is what matters most to Smith, not necessarily the hand delivery of totes that he used to do regularly but making sure those totes continue to be sent out to those who need them. "Honestly I'll deliver totes probably once every two to three years actually in person," said Smith. "For us it's not really about that, the thing for us is we just really want to get it out and get it to these hospitals. The joy that we get is just seeing those boxes shipped out. When people come fill them, they can see all the stuff that's in it and they can write their own handwritten letter to the kids that are going to open the totes. It's really special to see people helping our cause and really taking ownership of it and reaching as many people as we can." Smith has brought Tanner's Totes with him every step of the way, from playing college basketball at Clemson to playing professionally in Europe, and he has seen the generosity of others help it grow to what it is now. "I didn't know how big it was going to get," said Smith. "I think the cool thing was once it started gaining some momentum, you just had to roll with it. You look back and you're like wow there have been so many people who have really helped push it forward. I never thought we'd see that day. We could fill 50 totes, but now we have to fill 100, 200, at a time and I just never thought it would get that big." Apart from spreading joy to children in hospitals across the U.S., the development of his non-profit has allowed Smith to use it as a learning tool for fellow basketball players and teammates. Transitioning to the coaching side of basketball in 2015 at UNC Charlotte followed by Mississippi State in 2018, players from Clemson, his professional club in Europe and both universities have helped Smith continue Tanner's Totes and have even come along with him to local hospitals. Those deliveries show a side of the world those players may not be familiar with and have helped put their lives in perspective. "It just makes you appreciate every day, every moment, everything you get to do," said Smith. "I'm just thankful that I'm healthy enough to get up and live my life. I hope a lot of people realize just how lucky you are to get to do basic things. Those opportunities are really amazing. The people you meet, the stories you hear, the appreciation they give you. You feel like you're going in there to do something for them and you leave feeling like they did something for you. It's just a great feeling."
Smith's positivity and outlook on life has been shaped since he was young, turning the tragic circumstances his father had to deal with into something positive, a story especially fitting for this day and age. It's a positivity he continually spreads to those who need it most. And it won't stop anytime soon. "I had a chance to do all three things that I had always dreamed of," said Smith. "I think I wrote at the end of the paper, if one of these dreams were to come true, I'd want to help kids with cancer. I get to do that every day now. I get to do the thing that I really love the most and that's helping kids and doing Tanner's Totes every day. As long as there's a Tanner, there will be a Tanner's Totes."