After their 6-year-old son died, this Army family raised $40K for other sick kids
By MICHELLE MATTHEWS | Alabama Media Group, Birmingham (TNS) | Published: November 13, 2018
Though he only lived for six years, Bryce Caldwell "had this light about him that people were drawn to," says his father, Jeremy Caldwell. "It was something amazing to see, how warm a personality he had, how caring he was, even at such a young age."
In December of 2016, Bryce, then 5 years old, was diagnosed with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), an aggressive and incurable childhood cancer. Just one year later — three months longer than his prognosis — Bryce passed away on Dec. 14, 2017.
Determined to make the most of the time Bryce had left as he underwent treatment, the Caldwells learned about Make-A-Wish Alabama, which set up a "rush wish" for him. "Because of his prognosis, they expedited the process as much as they could," Jeremy says.
Last June, the family, who live in Enterprise, traveled to Denver to meet some of Bryce's favorite Broncos players. His parents, Jeremy and Suzy, were high school sweethearts in Colorado, which they consider to be home. Though Jeremy, who was born in California, grew up a San Francisco 49ers fan, his wife converted him to become a Broncos fan, too. And to ensure her boys were Broncos fans, she dressed them in Broncos T-shirts and hats.
Though he'd always enjoyed watching the Broncos on television, one of Bryce's favorite things to do was play football in the front yard with his mom and dad and two brothers, Tyler, 9, and Carson, 4. So when it was time to make his wish, he wished that his family could play football on a real football field.
That's just what they did on their family trip. While visiting the Broncos headquarters, Bryce got his own football jersey with his name and number 1 on the back; he carefully signed a "contract," just like a real pro football player; and he tried on Derek Wolfe's giant slides in the locker room. On the practice field, they all met Von Miller and the other players, and the three blond-haired boys played football with their parents, as Bryce had requested in his wish.
The Caldwells' wish trip "energized him, and us as a family," Jeremy says. "It was such a bright spot in that dark time. It had its own healing factor." The "happiness and joy" they all experienced helped buoy everyone's spirits tremendously and gave them a special memory that will last forever.
About a month after Bryce died, Suzy and Jeremy learned about Make-A-Wish Alabama's Trailblaze Challenge, which appealed to the outdoorsy, athletic couple. The endurance training and fundraising program culminated in a one-day, 26.3-mile hike in May on the Pinhoti Trail in the Talladega National Forest.
"It sounded like a really good cause," says Jeremy, "something I could focus on while swallowed up in the grief process. It became a way to not only give back and give another child and their family an experience like we had, but also to do something good with my grief."
After training for weeks, Jeremy began experiencing some health problems and ended up not being able to participate in the whole hike. With just four weeks to train, Suzy said she would do it. "She knocked it out of the park," says Jeremy, who ended up doing the last section of the hike with Suzy and their friends.
The Caldwells and their good friends, Will and Kate Searcy, were teammates who called themselves Bryce's Buddies. In honor of Bryce, they raised more than $42,000 for Make-A-Wish Alabama — enough to fund five wishes from children with life-threatening illnesses.
He credits the Searcys, the town of Enterprise and military families around the world with helping to raise that much. "Bryce's situation brought people together," he says. "They really supported us."
While serving in the U.S. Army, Jeremy and his family have moved around a lot. He has been stationed at Fort Rucker three times and has also been assigned to Fort Hood, Texas, and Hawaii, where they lived for three years. He's now at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, while his wife and their sons remain in Enterprise.
Last month, at Make-A-Wish America's annual conference in Phoenix, Jeremy and Suzy Caldwell received the Lori Schultz-Betancourt Indomitable Spirit Award for embodying "the essence of an indomitable spirit" and for showing "persistence, bravery, compassion, integrity and dedication."
As Jeremy accepted the award, Suzy, Tyler and Carson stood behind him on the stage. Tyler held a photo of Bryce. "This award represents determination, never giving up," Jeremy said. "Our family motto throughout Bryce's illness and since then has been 'Keep fighting, no matter what. Keep fighting.' That is what we did and what we continue to do each day."
Suzy and Jeremy will continue to fight. They're already planning to participate in the Alabama Trailblaze Challenge again in the spring.
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DB rookie, Bryce #1, cheering his teammates on to a MNF win from Children's Hospital in Birmingham. Bryce signed in June as an undrafted FA. pic.twitter.com/IRoRlkhWLx— Jeremy Caldwell (@JECaldwell84) September 13, 2017