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OHC Sandy Jesse Ditmore Radio Q102 Sandy Strong Project

The Sandy Strong Project: It Takes a Child to Raise a Consciousness

Dino Pelle, Blogs, Patient Stories, 14 comments
May 1, 2014


I’ve just arrived at the home of Stage IV colon cancer patient Sandy Ditmore. Located on a quiet cul de sac in Anderson Township, it has all the hallmarks of a classic middle class home in the suburbs — a well-manicured lawn, a well-maintained exterior, and did I mention “quiet?”

Walking up the drive, I barely notice a diminutive white banner — no bigger than a two-foot square — gently flapping in the breeze as it hangs over the garage door. Being a few minutes late, I don’t bother to read it, but later learn it’s a ‘Sandy Strong’ banner. I hurry to the front door and knock.

Within seconds, I’m warmly greeted by Sandy and ushered into her living room. And after just a few minutes chatting, I realize I’m in the presence of someone whose vitality and gregarious personality are larger than her tranquil surroundings. This is no quiet, down-on-her-luck wallflower. This is a confident, caring, and take-charge woman who is utterly life-affirming.

And I fully understand how she became the inspiration for a local movement to help bring hope and happiness to those with challenging health conditions.

OHC Medical Oncologist Dr. John Bismayer

OHC Medical Oncologist Dr. John Bismayer

Let’s start at the beginning.

Sandy says she first became symptomatic of cancer in 2002, about 10 years before being diagnosed. Back then, she wasn’t the type to visit a doctor casually. Being an active single mother of five children made it easy to overlook the symptoms that to her “seemed normal.”

So it wasn’t until she underwent an unrelated surgery that her condition was detected. By the time Sandy was officially diagnosed in March 2012, she was happily remarried with 10 children; two young boys still in the nest. Unfortunately, her cancer had metastasized from her colon to her liver, lungs, diaphragm, abdominal lining, and lymph nodes. She was just 49 and weeks away from the beginning of multiple surgeries and chemotherapy treatments.

One year later, Sandy was declared cancer-free. But in December 2013, she was diagnosed again with cancer in her liver and lungs. Sandy is currently undergoing chemotherapy under the care of OHC medical oncologist Dr. John Bismayer, of whom she says, “I give him a real workout but I absolutely love him…and all the nurses at OHC…you better put that in your story!”.

Regardless of the setback, Sandy is positively spirited. “When I hear people say, ‘I wish I could be as happy as you,’ I say, ‘You can be. It’s a choice. The first thing to be thankful for every day is that you woke up.’”

She adds, “Jesse is proof positive that this outlook I have, the way I’m living, is being reflected in the actions of my son.”

The Sandy Strong project is born.

Jesse Ryan Ditmore is Sandy’s 10-year-old son. He’s shy around strangers, but polite. And he appears more peaceful than he does quiet. It’s obvious that he adores his mother as he leans into her and watches her speak. And he comes alive at the mention of his favorite football team, the Chicago Bears. On the surface, Jesse seems to be a typical fourth grade boy.

But he is so much more. He has already accomplished what few kids his age ever dream. He is the creator of Sandy Strong, a project that has galvanized the K-6 students at six elementary schools in the Forest Hills School District to write nearly 1000 inspirational cards and letters. These messages of hope are then delivered to people suffering from Alzheimer’s, staying at the Ronald McDonald House, and undergoing chemotherapy.

Here’s how he did it.

In the fall of 2012, Jesse was watching an Indianapolis Colts football game on TV. He noticed a fan wearing a ‘Chuck Strong’ t-shirt to support head coach Chuck Pagano, who at the time was battling leukemia. “I can do that for my mom,” Jesse thought. He later designed his shirt and convinced his dad to take him to a local t-shirt printer.

Three weeks later, Jesse arrived at Sherwood Elementary and was surprised to find most of the staff wearing his t-shirts. The Sandy Strong project had started to catch on. But it was just the beginning.

Soon after Sandy’s cancer returned in 2013, Jesse noticed a new school secretary, Mrs. Tammy McCalla, celebrating with co-workers. It was the anniversary of her breast cancer survival. He later wrote a touching letter to Mrs. McCalla, congratulating her on her recovery and telling her about his own experience.

She invited Jesse to join her and a school counselor for lunch. It was then that the Sandy Strong project really came to life. They decided to get classmates to draw pictures and write letters for those in need. Jesse even began promoting the program by sending letters to celebrities like Katie Couric and Ellen DeGeneres (with whom he hopes to share his experience on national TV one day).

We reap what we have sown.

Today, the Sandy Strong project, much like the woman it honors, continues to thrive and inspire. And it’s growing beyond their community.

Sandy, Jesse, and Mrs. McCalla have heard from at least two other school districts in the tri-state that have expressed an interest in participating. Jesse has received a congratulatory letter and team photo from the commander of the Anderson, Indiana S.W.A.T. force. And he’s appeared on radio personality Amy Tobin’s “A Girl’s Guide to Living” on WKRQ-FM (101.9). Amy told her many listeners that Jesse is a hero.

That’s a tough act to follow. So where does a 10-year-old kid go from there?

“I know for a fact,” says Sandy, “that Jesse’s goal in life is to make sure that other people are happy and that he sees the world through positive eyes.”

Jesse, in his own way, agrees. “I’ve learned that the happiest people don’t have the best of everything, they just make the best of everything. It’s like blessings keep coming to my Mom. We stay strong and thankful.”

You can see samples of the art and letters created by the Sandy Strong project hanging on the walls of our OHC Anderson location.

If you’d like to know more about the Sandy Strong project, please contact Tammy McCalla of the Forest Hills School District at 513-231-7565.


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14 Responses

  1. Hi! This is a wonderful story. Are you open to my reprinting it with full credit, or posting a brief linking back to this full article in the weekly news?

    Thank you so much!


    • Dino Pelle says:

      Greg, thanks so much for your request. It’s hard not to want to spread the news…Sandy and Jesse are incredible people. So OHC is happy to grant your request to publish this story in aroundandersontownship.com. We have sent details to you via your personal email. All our best.

  2. Doris White says:

    I think Sandy has made her son a person to be proud of. He should be an inspiration to all young people. Just see how one person can make a difference in the lives of others. Go Jesse and Sandy and stay strong.

  3. Joann Partin says:

    This story is something that everyone would benefit from reading. Too many times we don’t get to know the hearts of others. For one~I applaud Sandy on her choice to be happy, too many of us can easily overlook that we have choices. And to Jesse for reaching out to others in need with obviously the same compassion he shares with his mother. I’ve always thought giving of ourself is one of the most important things we can do in this life and I would say that Sandy and Jesse are prime examples of that. Sandy sharing her happiness for life with others she comes in contact with and Jesse for sharing encouragement to others that may be the only encouragement they get. Sandy I have been praying for you for some time now. Will continue to do so. And Jesse….keep up the good work.

  4. David Waterhouse says:

    My Mom had Alzheimer’s Disease and while she was sick, someone like you reached out to her with a picture and words of encouragement! Thanks for all you are doing – I know your Mom is so very proud of you!
    Someday, I hope to meet you and thank you personally. I will have good thoughts for your Mom and your family.
    Dave Waterhouse, MD, MPH
    Chair, OHC Research

  5. sandy ditmore says:

    Thanks to each of you for your very kind words. I am so very proud of my son, but beyond that…I am so very grateful that he has discovered the fact that he alone can make a difference. That a positive attitude, and faith can carry us thru the most difficult times, and that life is more rewarding when we are happy. We don’t have enough time on this earth to waste it being sad, or feeling sorry for ourselves. Life is a gift…and each day I look forward to unwrapping it! Thank you all again! Keep us in your prayers…I truly believe that good medicine and prayers have allowed me to stick around for a bunch more trips around the sun!

    • Miranda says:

      Hi Sandy Ditmore,

      Your son is just wonderful and I go to Sherwood to. I know cancer could be hard but I want you to know that you will be in my prayers. 🙂

  6. Jennifer Dempsey says:

    This is one of the most beautiful and inspiring articles I have ever read. And knowing Sandy Ditmore and her beautiful son Jesse makes this even more special. The reflection of Sandy’s positive attiude is brought to life through Jesse’s dream and pro active efforts. Such mature advice to all of us from such brilliant young person is so refreshing and reassuring that this world is going to be alright. Jesse, you will go far in your endeavors and we look forward to seeing you on the Ellen Show or wherever YOU choose to be! We so believe in you and your inspriational mother. We are so blessed by your friendship and wish you the very best always. Thank you for all you are doing to make the lives of so many others better!

  7. kate says:

    Jesse is a kind and dedicated student. I am always blown away by his internal need to help others. I feel blessed to know this family!

  8. Miranda says:

    I know Jesse and it is just amazing what he his doing for his mom and his family

  9. Karen Kramer says:

    I wanted to share that Sandy succcumbed to her 6 year battle and is now resting in peace. She passed away 3/918. She leaves behind her inspiring legacy. Wake up everyday and be grateful for your blessings.

  10. Pam Weist says:

    Tonight we shall gather and say a sorrowful goodbye to sweet Sandy. She never wavered, stayed positive and remained Sandy Strong.
    We will miss you Sandy Ditmore, May you Rest In Peace.

    • Dino Pelle says:

      We here at OHC will dearly miss Sandy as well. She was a lovely spirit. And we’ll never forget our interactions and our article-interview with her…we’re sure her family, especially her son, will continue to honor her legacy and relentless hope and optimism.