The year was 1981. Twenty-four years later — 22 years after Bonnie’s death at age 12 — the organization her family started has raised more than $2 million to fund research that’s helping children with cancer live longer and better lives.
Bonnie’s father, Howard Freeman, remembers his daughter’s precocious determination with a bittersweet fondness familiar to parents who’ve lost young children. “My daughter came to me and said, ‘Hey Dad, let’s help raise money so that other kids don’t have to go through what I’m going through,’” says Freeman, recalling the terrifying days after Bonnie had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. ALL is the most common form of cancer in children, accounting for a third of all childhood cancers. As a result of treatment breakthroughs over the last 35 years, about 85 percent of children with ALL today live five years or more.
Freeman still marvels at his daughter’s courage. “I thought, how incredible it is that our daughter, who’s going through all of this, is thinking about other kids. So I said, ‘We’re going to do it.’”
Freeman, his wife, Laurel, and daughter Carolyne have done just that — continuing the legacy that Bonnie started before she died in 1983. The organization, whose name clearly spells out its ambitious goal, has become one of the most successful charities in the north central Florida area and a model for other organizations.
Since 1985, STOP! has donated more than $1.4 million to the University of Florida College of Medicine to fund research projects that study the causes and treatments for different forms of childhood cancer. An additional $673,600 has been placed into the organization’s Legacy Fund, which will be a source of perpetual research grants once it reaches $10 million. In 2003 STOP! pledged to donate $1 million — $100,000 annually over the next 10 years — to fund pediatric cancer research at the college.
Carolyne Freeman, a broker-associate in her father’s real estate office, Freeman Realty Inc., in Gainesville, says that although her younger sister’s memory is the heart of the organization, her father’s tireless fund-raising work has been its soul.
“He does it because he’s altruistic,” says Carolyne. “It’s not going to bring back the person we want to bring back, but it’s going to help other people.”
STOP!’s three annual fund-raising events — a black-tie gala called the Fantasy Event, the Charity Golf Classic, and Holiday Traditions: A Musical Celebration — are among Gainesville’s most anticipated social events. Every year they raise not only hundreds of thousands of dollars for cancer research but also the social consciousness of area residents.
The research funded in part by STOP! has already made a tremendous difference in the lives of children with cancer. For example, specialized treatments for children with neuroblastoma, a leading form of childhood cancer, were pioneered at the University of Florida in the last two decades with the help of grants from STOP!, says Stephen Hunger, M.D., chief of the pediatric hematology/oncology division at the university, who calls Howard Freeman “a very special person.” Those treatments are now widely used throughout the country.
Freeman is modest about his contribution, saying the good work of STOP! helps him keep alive the spirit of Bonnie, the sixth-grader who loved life and was an avid dancer and competitive tennis player. But he’s far from modest in his ambition for the organization.
“I hope that more fantastic research can be done so that we can actually stop children’s cancer and all cancer,” says Freeman, who lost his mother to uterine cancer when he was 17. “We’re just trying to do our part so that an answer can be found one day.”