Gala helps support mission of Austin Strong Foundation
By: Kim Brooks
“Your son has cancer. There is no cure. You need to take him home and make memories.”
In mid-January, Britt and Mikinzie Smith of Monticello, parents of Austin Smith, were told those exact words from doctors. Sixteen months later on May 20, 2016, their 6-year-old boy lost his battle with DIPG (Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma).
DIPG is an inoperable brain tumor, affecting children, ages 5-7 years of age. According to the Smiths, there is less than a 1 percent survival rate.
“DIPG tumors are highly aggressive and difficult to treat,” explained the Smiths.
Typically, children who are diagnosed with DIPG only live for another nine months. Austin was strong and resilient and lived another 16 months.
“You have to believe that your child could be the one to beat this,” the Smiths recalled. “Little did we know that along his journey, this little boy would capture the hearts of so many and become an inspiration to all those around him.”
Austin’s strong determination became a mantra not only around Monticello and Jones County, but beyond. The tagline “Austin Strong” was seen everywhere: in car windows, bumper stickers, yard signs, in businesses, on t-shirts, and more.
“‘Austin Strong’ became a way of life for our family and the community,” the Smiths said of the wide support.
Wanting to help other families in their battle with DIPG and to some day find a cure, the Smith family and friends came together to establish the 501(c)(3) non-profit organization “Austin Strong Foundation.”
“The pain of losing a child is impossible to describe and leaves you paralyzed with questions,” explained the Smiths.
The Foundation exists to help fund research, raise awareness, and support those fighting DIPG and other childhood cancers.
With so many people donating to cancer organizations all over the country and through their fight with childhood cancer, Britt and Mikinzie found just how little filters down to DIPG specifically.
Of the total NCI (National Cancer Institute) annual budget, only 4 percent goes to pediatric cancer in general. From there, that 4 percent piece is divided and given to DIPG and other forms of childhood cancers.
“We promised Austin that we would do our part to put an end to this awful disease,” the Smiths said.
To carry on that mission, the Smiths donated his tumor to DIPG research.
“No child and family should have to endure this brutal disease and we will continue to fight just as Austin did.”
This is where the Foundation comes into play. The Austin Strong Foundation is part of a collaborative of other childhood cancer foundations that raise private funds to encourage research efforts.
“We all pull our resources together and collaborate with the best doctors and surgeons in the world,” Mikinzie explained.The Austin Strong Foundation donated $25,000, which is the goal every year, toward this research. Mikinzie said there are over 30 foundations working together, all donating between $25,000 and $100,000 toward the cause.
“It’s an amazing thing to be a part of,” she said.
In order to help raise money for the Austin Strong Foundation, family and friends organize Austin’s Halloween Fun Night in October. There is now an official website, www.austinstrong.org, where you can donate online. You can also purchase merchandise with the Austin Strong logo to support the Foundation as well.
“We have a committee that is full of ideas,” Mikinzie said of future events planned.
On Saturday, April 8, the Second Annual Austin Strong Gala will be held at The Jitney in downtown Monticello. The first gala was held last March as a way to help the Smith family with travel expenses as they planned to head to Germany for experimental treatment for Austin.
In an effort to continue to support the Foundation, Erin Cox and Katie Farrowe, owners of The Jitney, said they wanted to open their place of business for the event.
“It’s a good way to raise potentially a substantial amount of money,” said Farrowe.
Mikinzie said seeing the community come out for the gala, and other events, shows how supportive everyone is.
“It’s brought a lot of attention to our area,” Mikinzie said of DIPG.
Tickets can be purchased for $75 a piece. Only 75 tickets will be sold. The gala will be held from 7 p.m. to midnight.
The event will include superhero-themed cocktail specials; appetizers; live music provided by Drew Brown, Austin’s cousin from Madison, Wis.; a silent auction; games and prizes; and pictures of attendees dressed in their best.
“People have a lot of fun at the gala,” said Farrowe.
“Everyone is there for the same reason,” said Mikinzie.
“To fight for Austin’s memory and every other child,” added Farrowe.
Cox recalled the fighter in Austin.
“Life is too short,” she said.
Last year, the gala raised over $20,000.
“Everything is donated to the Foundation,” said Cox.
Some of the auction items include spa services, Chicago Cubs tickets, items from Dale Earnhardt Jr. Motorsports, getaways/vacation packages, sports memorabilia from Iowa State and the University of Iowa, collectible guns, jewelry, and more.
“We have a lot of items,” said Cox, and are still taking more for those who wish to donate. Aside from donating toward the auction, Cox said you could also donate money toward the event.
“If everyone in Monticello donated just $1,” she said, “that’s over $3,000.”
With a new addition to the Smith family, Austin’s baby brother Colt, Mikinzie said they get their therapy through the Foundation.
“It keeps Austin’s memory alive,” she said. “The support from so many people means the world to us.”
And, Colt is expected to make a special appearance at the Gala on April 8 as well.
For tickets, contact Mikinzie or The Jitney. More information on the Gala is available online and Facebook through the Austin Strong Foundation page