From childhood wish to lasting legacy, Smith's charity specializes in smiles
CLEMSON, S.C. -- It was a typically frantic Monday morning and, hurrying to get out the door, Kathy Smith started to scratch her name on her son's homework assignment when she stopped to read what he had written.
The fourth-grade creative assignment was pretty straightforward: If I Had Three Wishes.
Kathy smiled as she read the first item on her son's bucket list: a golden retriever. Ever since he met a slobbering canine friend across the street, Tanner had been hounding his parents for a puppy. But with the holidays closing in, his parents already had warned him: Don't bother asking Santa for a dog.
His second wish was to play professional basketball, hardly a surprise for a young jock like Tanner, who spent his time shuffling between the football fields, baseball diamonds and basketball courts in his Alpharetta, Ga., community.
It was the third item that made Kathy stop.
"To make kids with cancer laugh," Tanner wrote in his 9-year-old scrawl.
Kathy showed the paper to her husband, Craig.
"Well, he's getting a dog," Craig Smith said.
And indeed, that Christmas a big pile of blonde fur who would be christened Griffey bounded into the family living room. Also among the wrappings were a Sacramento Kings locker and a red clown nose.
"The locker was to represent basketball and the nose was to make kids with cancer laugh," Kathy said. "We figured that would be the end of it."
For two years, that was the end of it. And then as part of a sixth-grade homework assignment, Tanner reiterated his wish to help kids with cancer.
"I wanted to make sure my parents got the message," said Tanner, now a freshman guard for No. 13 Clemson.
Plenty of people would have dashed off a check to the American Cancer Society or found a fundraiser for their son to join and been done with it.
The Smiths turned their son's dream into a reality, stuffing smiles and kindness alongside toys and trinkets into Tanner's Totes, the grab bags of goodies the family's nonprofit company delivers to preteens and teenagers battling cancer and other long-term ailments.
In seven years the family has delivered more than 1,200 totes.
"Plenty of people are affected by cancer, but not everyone is spurred to action by it," said Clemson coach Oliver Purnell. "That's what makes Tanner and his parents extraordinary. They did something about it."
Cancer crept into the Smiths' lives more than 15 years ago.
Craig Smith, a young father just growing into his dentistry practice in Georgia, was diagnosed with Stage IV non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The family spent three months in Nebraska, where Craig received a bone-marrow transplant from his sister.
Tanner, the Smiths' only child, was 3 and remembers only sketchy details -- donning the germ-free suits to visit his father in the hospital, falling and breaking his own collarbone -- from the family's stay there.
The Smiths returned to their Alpharetta home, and for a while, life rolled into a comfortable pattern. And then, just a year after battling cancer, Craig was diagnosed with graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), a complication in which the white blood cells transplanted along with his sister's bone marrow attacked his own. GVHD is not uncommon, but Craig has an extreme case. He cannot produce saliva or tears, and has just 25 percent use of his lungs.
Prone to severe infections, he has endured frequent hospital stays and shuttered his career as a dentist. Just last week he was on a heavy dose of antibiotics to fend off yet another infection.
With a tight family knot of three, the Smiths are incredibly close, but Craig's struggles have made them even closer. Tanner offers his parents fleeting joy and welcome distractions -- "To sit there and watch Clemson whipping Duke and my son is on the floor, oh my gosh, it's just incredible," Craig said -- and Craig imbues Tanner with his strength.
"My dad, my dad is just an incredible man," Tanner said. "He's had to deal with so much, but the way he's handled it, it amazes me. I'm sure there have been times where he's thought, 'This is it,' but he just handles everything so well."
Craig took a job that allowed him to work from his house, so while other kids watched their dads pack up for business trips or late hours, Tanner was spoiled by the comfort that his dad was always home.
But there was a tradeoff. Craig was around, but his physical frailty made it difficult to really get down and dirty when it came time to teach Tanner to play sports.
As Tanner grew taller and more talented -- joining the Georgia Stars AAU team on which he played alongside Wake's Al-Farouq Aminu -- he split his time between the Alpharetta sports facilities and the hospital rooms housing his dad.
Tanner has never spent a whole lot of time examining his conscience, trying to pinpoint what exactly motivated him to help kids all those years ago. He remembers seeing "Patch Adams," the Robin Williams film about a doctor who used unconventional measures, including humor, to treat his patients.
But even more he remembers his dad's hospital rooms, where every card was prominently displayed, every flower given a spot to shine. Anything that could make the gloomy room even a little brighter, Craig used.
"Tanner knows the difference between sympathy and empathy," Craig said. "That's what he has for these kids: empathy. He's seen me in the hospital. He knows what it's like."
The Smiths didn't have any grand plans, just Tanner's guiding principle: to make kids with cancer laugh. Kathy contacted a sorority sister who worked in an Atlanta-area hospital for advice. She learned that little kids received plenty of support from outside groups, but preteens and teenagers were sort of the forgotten demographic.
Buoyed by the idea of helping kids the same age as Tanner, the family decided to gather things to brighten hospital rooms, and toys that would fill an otherwise lonely day. The Smiths put everything in tote bags so kids could carry their wares from treatment to treatment.
The first bags were as mom-and-pop as could be, printed by an uncle with a silk-screening business and filled by neighbors who, at the Smiths' request, came armed with loot to the family's annual Halloween party. In 2002, 12-year-old Tanner made his first delivery to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.
"At first I wasn't sure it would matter," Tanner said. "I mean, what can colored pencils and modeling clay do? But we can't cure cancer right now. There isn't a medicine or a shot or a test that helps you cure it or prevent it. At least we can help somebody get through it.
"I remember when I was in high school, this girl got cancer. Her brother was in my class, and the year before he was helping me fill bags. Then all of a sudden we're delivering a bag to her. You just don't know."
Tanner was too young to visit the patients. He just pulled a wagon filled with them to one of the hospital staff members and left the rest to his mother.
"I'm sure the hospital staff is thinking, 'Oh that's cute,' figuring it was a one-time thing," Tanner said. "I mean, I was a kid."
But the idea took root in the hospital. Kids loved the bags, so the Smiths decided to keep going. Craig handled the necessary paperwork to turn Tanner's Totes into a nonprofit, while Kathy went shopping. She bought things kids would like: nail polish and manicure sets for the girls, Nerf basketballs and hoops for the boys and Staples "Easy" buttons for everyone ("So when they finish a treatment, they can hit that button and say, 'OK, that was easy,'" Kathy explained).
The first bags -- it costs about $60 to fill one -- were paid for out of pocket, but soon Tanner's teams were helping out, using Tanner's Totes as fundraisers. Then it was area Girl Scout troops joining in, and later a Georgia garden club contributing $18,000.
Before long, the Smiths' basement rec room turned into Tanner's Totes headquarters, the pingpong table covered with boxes of gear to fill the bags.
The effort stayed fairly localized, with visits to Atlanta-area hospitals and an affiliation with the Medical University of South Carolina, until last year when Vern Yip and HGTV featured the Smiths on "Deserving Design."
Tanner got a new hang-out room, Craig a new office and Tanner's Totes an unexpected boost of national publicity.
Hospitals in Jacksonville, Fla., and Nebraska have contacted the Smiths for tote bags; a Girl Scout troop in Texas is working with Dallas-area hospitals, and just last week Kathy shipped a second order of 15 to a Memphis hospital.
The totes have given solace and comfort to more than a thousand kids, but closer to home have buoyed the spirits of someone far more important to Tanner.
"When I see my wife come in with the gobs of stuff and look at our basement, or what used to be our basement, it's amazing," Craig said. "It's really amazing."
This year, Tanner took a sabbatical from his fledgling charity to help another cause: Clemson basketball.
The kid who grew up loving baseball so much he named his dog after Ken Griffey Jr. sprouted into a basketball player once he hit high school. By the end of his freshman season at the Wesleyan School, Tanner was starting for the varsity. By the middle of his high school career, his dad figured he had a Division I player on his hands.
"I was thinking he'd be a great mid-major player," Craig said. "I'm thinking maybe Georgia State."
Instead, as Tanner blossomed into a three-star prospect and all-state selection by the end of his senior year, the letters came from Missouri and Virginia Tech, Georgia and Clemson.
He chose Clemson because it was close enough for his parents to get to games, but far enough that he could spread his wings.
And it was in the ACC, a league Tanner remembers watching as a kid.
"Those guys looked like men," he said. "I was a scrawny little blond kid."
The scrawny little blond kid is 6-foot-5 now. He's appeared in all 25 of Clemson's games, averaging 3.9 points and 13 minutes per game as a true freshman.
It's all pretty amazing really, as if that fourth-grade wish list was scribbled on a genie's notepad. Griffey is an amiable nine now, slowed down by a recent knee replacement, but a full-fledged family member that even Kathy and Craig can't imagine living without.
Professional basketball may or may not be in Tanner's future, but by joining the minuscule percentage of athletes who have earned Division I scholarships, he has certainly taken at least a baby step in that direction.
And Tanner's Totes? Tanner dreams of it exploding into a national charity, and is majoring in pre-business with hopes of guiding Tanner's Totes along for the foreseeable future.
But even if it stays small, Tanner knows his original wish -- to help kids -- is coming true.
On the organization's Web site is a list of testimonials from patients and families, people who wrote to thank Tanner and his parents for their efforts.
"It really makes me feel good knowing someone's thinking about me," 14-year-old D.L. wrote (real names aren't used).
"I am a cancer patient. I have a tumor in my right leg. Thanks so much for the beautiful watch. It made me feel better," signed T.G., age 15.
"My 15-year-old daughter was diagnosed with AML leukemia. Shortly after that, we received one of your tote bags. May God bless you for having blessed us!" added a parent identified by the initials M.A.
One kid, three wishes, countless lives changed.
"You read that paper, a fourth-grader's wish, and you're thinking, 'OK, he'll want to be a fireman or play sports,"' Kathy said. "And then you get to the third item and it's 'Whoa.' You're just floored.
"I can't believe where it's taken us, can't even put it in words. This little fourth-grader, he just changed us all."
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also chat with her every Wednesday at 2 ET.
EDITOR'S NOTE: To make a contribution to or learn more about Tanner's Totes, go to www.tannerstotes.com.