The Barrett Strong Foundation has turned a life into a legacy

When six-year-old Barrett Fitzsimmons was diagnosed with a type of liver cancer in 2016, the community rallied to support him and his family.

That support hasn't wavered even now, as The Barrett Strong Foundation that honors his life continues to raise funds and support causes, such as pediatric cancer research.

“One small boy – it's incredible he could touch the lives of as many people as he does,” says his father, Brad Fitzsimmons.

Barrett passed away in 2019, shortly after finishing the third grade at Northwestern Elementary School. His parents, Brad and Lana, started The Barrett Strong Foundation two months later, on what would have been Barrett's tenth birthday. Since then, the foundation has raised more than $75,000 and donated to causes close to the family's heart.

In December, the foundation presented a $10,000 donation to Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus in support of research regarding several types of rare childhood cancers, including the hepatocellular carcinoma with which Barrett was diagnosed. It was the foundation's first contribution toward pediatric cancer research, Fitzsimmons says.

“I was so excited that we got to do that,” he says.

The foundation also sponsors a room in memory of Barrett at the Dayton Ronald McDonald House. Fitzsimmons says the family used Ronald McDonald Houses in both Dayton and Cincinnati for anywhere between a couple of days to several weeks as Barrett was a patient or had surgeries.

“They don't require you to pay for the room, so it's incredibly beneficial for families who go through what we went through,” says Fitzsimmons. He and Lana also have two daughters, Braelynn, 9, and Braydee, 7.

In addition, the foundation has awarded a number of college scholarships to students at Northwestern High School. Students from other county high schools will be eligible to apply in the future.

COVID-19 forced The Barrett Strong Foundation to come up with a different way to raise funds last year after the pandemic convinced them to hold off on repeating the popular bowling fundraiser from the previous year. Instead, the foundation decided on a live, online dessert auction.

The dessert auction, held the week before Thanksgiving, outperformed from the start. Instead of collecting the goal of 20 desserts, the foundation received 30 donations of pies, cookies, cheesecakes, cupcake bouquets and more. Then businesses started matching monetary donations.

When the auction started, people began bidding $300, $400 and even $500, Fitzsimmons says. He initially thought the auction wouldn't earn as much as the bowling fundraiser the year before. Instead, the auction raised around $16,000 – about three times more than bowling.

“It far exceeded our expectations,” he says.

The foundation plans to hold both bowling and dessert fundraisers later this year and hopes to launch a golf outing this summer. Details have yet to be hammered out, but Fitzsimmons says it won't be a traditional golf outing – children will be involved in some way.

More about the foundation's events and causes can be found on its website and Facebook page.

In fact, the foundation hopes to add a new event every year until it has a major fundraiser every month, Fitzsimmons says. As the foundation grows, so too has its board. Last year Brad's sister, Kristen Fitzsimmmons, joined the board, as did two of Brad and Lana's long-time friends - Scott Greene and Jennifer Brentlinger.

Greene says he's passionate about the foundation's mission and saw firsthand Barrett's bravery and resilience.

“We want to carry on his legacy and do as much as we can to help so no other family has to go through that,” says Greene, an agent at Fourman Insurance.

Donations to the foundation are changing lives everywhere, he says, both around the world through the cancer research it is helping to fund and locally through college scholarships. The community support has been incredible.

Barrett has been gone for nearly two years, but Brad remembers the support the community showed from the very beginning with donations and food trains. He still sees cars bearing the Barrett Strong logo and people wearing Barrett Strong shirts.

Barrett impacted a lot of people in the short time he was here, his dad says. The foundation is a way to memorialize and honor Barrett's life and make a difference.

“We wanted to keep it going and do something good,” he says.

Read more articles by Diane Erwin.