Thursday, February 21, 2013

Chili Cookoff for Cancer Research

Not long ago I received a Facebook invite to attend a chili cook-off in Joplin. Since I love chili and never met a cook-off I didn’t like, I visited the event’s page to learn more about the details surrounding the upcoming culinary competition. This particular fundraiser hopes to raise awareness (and money, every fundraiser hopes to raise money) for the CERN (Collaborative Ependymoma Research Network) Foundation, whose mission is to “develop new treatments for ependymoma (a rare type of brain cancer), thereby improving the outcomes and care of patients, ultimately leading to a cure.” But what really caught my eye about this particular fundraiser was the fact that it is being hosted by high school students and not, as I initially thought, by a church or other adult-led organization.

Many of my contemporaries spend a lot of time criticizing today’s youth. “What’s wrong with kids today?” “Why are teens so self-absorbed?” “Why don’t kids today respect their elders and treat others with respect?” These questions that I hear from other adults and parents are not unlike comments made by my parents’ peers during my own coming-of-age years (and their parents before them, and so on and so on.) Thus, when I saw that a massive fundraiser was initiated by a couple of teenagers, I knew I needed to delve a little deeper and find out what these kids hoped to achieve from this very worthwhile endeavor.

What motivated the event’s three main organizers – Elaina Warren, Emily Watson, and Michael Gonzalez, all seniors at Joplin High School – to step outside of their comfort zone and plan such an ambitious project? Their admiration for their friend and classmate, Cooper Vocelka.

In 2008, when he was thirteen years old, Cooper began his fight against brain cancer. After three months of vomiting and headaches from what doctors initially thought was stress or a gastrointestinal complication, Cooper’s mom, Sherry, requested an MRI. A scan in December revealed a 5 centimeter mass in Cooper’s brain and he was immediately sent to Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. Six months later, Cooper successfully completed his treatment which included two brain surgeries, chemotherapy, and 33 rounds of Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy.

Cooper’s periodic scans remained clear until 2011 when a scan in March revealed three spots on his brain. After six weeks the spots decreased in size and in July they were deemed stable and non-indicative of a tumor. However, in September Cooper exhibited signs of a relapse and was sent back to Children’s Mercy for removal of a recurrent tumor. Doctors successfully removed this latest tumor and Cooper received five rounds of Stereotactic Radiation Therapy following the surgery, but in April of 2012 more tumor growth was discovered. Cooper began a clinical trial chemotherapy drug in the hopes of stabilizing the tumor. In July 2012, an MRI revealed increased tumor growth and fluid buildup, inducing the need for yet another surgery. Unfortunately, the doctors were unable to remove the entire tumor.  Cooper began treatment with another clinical trial drug but he experienced adverse effects and has now been taken off of the chemotherapy.

Last summer Cooper’s youth group at the First United Methodist Church in Joplin hosted a neighborhood block party and invited all residents in the church’s surrounding community to join them for a barbecue. When he observed the successful turnout for the block party, Cooper decided a chili cook-off would be a great fundraiser idea for the colder winter months. He told his friends his idea, and they immediately volunteered to help, meeting once a week for the past few months in order to plan the event.

When asked what prompted him to choose the CERN Foundation and brain cancer research as the focus of his fundraiser, Cooper told me, “I feel one of my callings is to be a humanitarian and activist for cancer research. Brain cancer is more rare than other types of cancer and so they need the most research.”

While Cooper took some time off to recuperate from his many chemotherapy treatments, his friends worked diligently to plan the cook-off and hash out the details necessary for its success. However, Cooper’s influence is obvious in everything about the event, particularly the prizes: The winner of the cook-off will receive a special Chili Pot Crown and Ladle Scepter, crowning him or her “King” or “Queen” and earning her (or him – I suppose it’s possible a guy might make better chili than I do - but I doubt it…) exclusive bragging rights for the best chili.

Elaina, Emily, and Michael are all eager to share their thoughts about Cooper and the indelible mark he has made on their lives. Says Elaina, “Cooper is always positive and never says negative things. He is always happy for himself and others, in spite of his illness. I look up to him for that.”

Emily adds that she is drawn to Cooper by his “perseverance through God. He is a role model in our youth group.”

While not a member of Cooper’s youth group, Michael finds Cooper inspiring through his attitude and actions at school and among his peers.  He also appreciates Cooper’s willingness to use his talents to give back to his community.

As these kids told me about their plans for the fundraiser – which they hope to turn into an annual event – I realized that despite adults’ complaints that today’s youth are “disrespectful, unmotivated, inconsiderate, impolite, self-absorbed, lazy, etc. etc.”, many teens are actually out there doing things to try and make the world a better place.  They understand that sometimes life isn’t fair, and that, while we don’t always know or understand why things happen the way they do, we still have the power – and the responsibility – to do what we can to help others around us.

Their willingness to work hard and make life a little better for others makes me admire and respect them. As Emily said, “If the three of us can make an impact, what else can kids our age do?”

The chili cook-off, which is open to the public, will be held on Sunday, March 10, 2013 from 12:15 to 2 p.m. in the Family Life Center at First United Methodist Church in Joplin. A $5 donation entry fee provides participants the opportunity to taste the various chili entries and vote for their favorites. The winner will be the chili that receives the most “votes” through monetary donations (so bring your check book!) The Joplin High School Jazz Band will perform and there will also be a silent auction and bake sale (donations are currently being accepted). Donations to the CERN Foundation may also be mailed to FUMC, 501 West 4th St., Joplin, MO 64801. For more information, please visit the event’s Facebook page.


  1. Great kids, great cause, and a great youth leader who encourages and doesn't micromanage.

    1. I agree, Dyanne. Barry's role in this event is simply to ensure the kids don't miss any important details. He is truly one of the best youth leaders I've ever met.

  2. Replies
    1. Nina, I agree. As soon as I saw that this event was being planned and run by high school students, I knew that I wanted to write about it.