The Fight Against Childhood Cancer is Headquartered in the Lowcountry
Did you know September is National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month? Few people do. It isn’t marketed like some adult cancers—there’s no colorful ribbon or cute slogan to talk about this devastating side of the disease.
“Childhood cancer is brutal,” said Brandon Arrieta, co-founder of Lambs for Life. “It wrecks families. It’s a destructive force, and no one’s really talking about it.”
But Brandon and Caroline Arrieta of Hilton Head Island are changing the conversation, one child at a time. Their nonprofit, Lambs for Life, has three methods of outreach—legislative action, educational programs and delivering Lamby Packs to children who are hospitalized with cancer.
“The Lamby Packs were Alex’s idea,” Brandon said. “He knew what those long hospital stays were like. It was his vision to bring a little joy to other kids who were suffering.”
Brandon and Caroline’s son, Alex Arrieta, was diagnosed with AML (an aggressive form of leukemia) when he was 9 years old. He beat his cancer once, only to have it return a few months later.
“The night we told Alex his cancer was back, he looked up at us and said, ‘I want to do things different this time.’ He asked that instead of people sending him toys and games, they send him lambs. He asked if I could find other children with cancer to give them to. He brought his own lamby everywhere with him, and he wanted to share that comfort with as many children as he could. That night, we made the logo and the first little website. And just like that, Lambs for Life was born.”
In addition to a unique stuffed lamb and a note from the Arrietas, a Lamby Pack includes a fleece pillowcase, hand sanitizer, air freshener, and some toys handpicked by Alex.
“We went to Adventure Cove on Alex’s last day on Hilton Head,” Brandon said. “He picked out prizes for himself—a whoopee cushion, disappearing ink, a light-up top. He knew best what would be entertaining when you’re sitting in a bed by yourself for months. So those are the toys we put in the Lamby Packs.” (Adventure Cove generously donated toys, put the Arrietas in contact with wholesalers, and completely funded the inaugural Lambs for Life event on Alex’s birthday.)
Originally, Lambs for Life was just going to be an outreach program for hospitalized children with cancer. But the more Brandon and Caroline learned about how childhood cancer is treated, the more they felt they had to do something about it.
“Alex passed away just one day after he was told he was cancer-free,” Brandon said. “The drugs were just too much strain on his body—because they’re not drugs created for children. They’re adult drugs, adapted in smaller doses. And cancer just doesn’t look the same in a child’s body. It develops differently, it attacks differently. Children with cancer suffer all sorts of unrelated health issues from the treatments.”
Brandon knew the problem wasn’t funding—although only 4 percent of the National Cancer Institute’s funding goes toward childhood cancer research, the money childhood cancer received was spent researching trials with adult drugs instead of creating new treatments.
Brandon and Caroline, who owned and ran a restaurant on Hilton Head, started dedicating their time to contacting senators and government representatives about this glaring issue.
“Children aren’t legislators or lobbyists,” Brandon said. “Even though I’m not the expert on this—I’m just a restaurant guy—I knew I had to try to fix it. Kids don’t get a legislative voice, so I knew I had to be the messenger.”
After sitting down with Lindsey Graham (SC U.S. Senator) and hearing his approval, Brandon decided to go to Washington, D.C. and present his plan to Senate committees. He attended 13 meetings in two days, and by the end of it, he had the go-ahead to draft a committee report amending the structure of the National Cancer Institute.
“This will be the most impactful legislation for childhood cancer in the history of the NCI,” Brandon said. “It was everything I wanted plus a little bit more. I’m blessed to be a part of it.”
If that wasn’t major enough, Lambs for Life is also spearheading an educational program about childhood cancer awareness. Catholic school children, Boy Scouts, and other children’s organizations—around 8 million children nationwide—will be enrolled in Lambs for Life’s unique awareness program.
“Some hospitals and public schools were going to work with us, but they said they couldn’t officially endorse our ‘religious message.’ And we thought about changing the wording on the website—all it really says is that the lambs represent the Holy Lamb of God—but we decided we wouldn’t be doing this at all if not for the grace of God. I have no doubt Lambs for Life would fail if we sacrificed our beliefs for support.”
Two years after Alex passed away, the Arrietas’ faith is stronger than ever. They sold their restaurant and now run Lambs for Life full-time. They deliver Lamby Packs to hospitals and meet with local politicians; Brandon is currently working with the NCI to draft a complete version of the restructuring law.
“It’s bizarre to say, but going through this with Alex was a horrific way of experiencing some beautiful things. Through him, with his help, and with God’s help, we’ve found this way to make the world a better place.”
If you’re interested in volunteering with Lambs for Life, go to lambsforlife.org and sign up to be a Lambassador. You’ll be making a difference right here in Hilton Head to children across the country.