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