Bringing Christmas to town: BYU men’s basketball gives to kids with cancer

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Mark Austin and his family pose with the BYU men’s basketball team in 2011. Austin’s daughter, Emily — in the yellow hat — was first diagnosed with leukemia in 1998 at age five and later died in 2012. The Austins attended the Mac’s Gift event every year with Emily. (Mark Austin)

It’s the fathers who break down in tears.

Through gift-giving and cheer-spreading, Cheryl Rose has noticed it’s the fathers — who feel the burden of providing for their families — shedding tears when they realize their children have been given Christmas by total strangers.

“They’re brought to tears and it’s a sweet, sweet experience,” Rose said.

It’s an experience she’s been helping create for almost 20 years. Rose is a committee member of the Mac’s Gift Children’s Cancer Foundation, which “was created to help the families of children who are battling cancer … and to do so especially around the Christmas season,” according to the foundation’s website.

Both Cheryl and her husband Dave Rose, the BYU men’s basketball coach, have been involved with the organization since its first year at a Harmon’s car dealership in Provo. The organization was originally called the Children with Cancer Christmas Foundation. Founder and cancer survivor Mac Boyter, who worked at the dealership, wanted to lift families struggling with childhood cancer. The foundation was renamed Mac’s Gift shortly before his passing in 2013.

The Christmas-giving event took on a more personal nature for the Roses when Dave Rose was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2009, which he would struggle with for the next eight years. Cheryl said she didn’t understand how cancer affects family bonds until her husband was dealing with cancer himself.

“They (families with sick children) didn’t worry about things that didn’t matter,” she said. “They were so focused on loving each other and loving their children and quality time, and you could feel it.”

Mac Boyter (left) founded the Mac’s Gift Children’s Cancer Foundation to lift families of children with cancer. The foundation’s annual Christmas event is entirely focused on helping families enjoy Christmas during their hardships. (Charami Boyter)

The Roses attended the event for the first time in place of then basketball coach Steve Cleveland, who was unable to attend that night. Cheryl said she was “overwhelmed and impressed” by the event, and the following year, she was asked to return as a committee member.

Cheryl said the foundation helped 13 families that first year, but it’s since expanded to include over 200 families. The two-night event, held this year on Dec. 12 and 13 in the Nu Skin Enterprises building in Provo, includes dinners, presents and special guests.

According to the Mac’s Gift website, they received over $84,000 in donations in 2015 — and since they’re an entirely volunteer-run organization, every bit of donated time and money goes to children with cancer and their families.

The Christmas crew

Cheryl said Mac’s Gift is unique because they’re not raising money for a cure or for treatments — their focus is solely on helping families enjoy Christmas during their hardships. Due to doctor’s appointments and dealing with cancer treatments, many parents don’t have the time and energy for Christmas shopping, let alone the money.

“All the time, when you talk to these families, they say that Christmas is kind of the last thing on their mind,” she said.

That’s why much of the event is geared toward providing presents for the families. Cheryl said the planning starts months in advance, with the committee first meeting in early October.

It’s not until the week of the event, though, that BYU basketball coaches and their wives “take over Walmart” and load up 20 to 30 carts with toys paid through donations. Volunteers have already been in touch with the families about what presents the children are hoping for, and each child is bought a larger toy and two smaller ones. Then everything is loaded into a U-Haul truck and taken to the Nu Skin building.

Cosmo the Cougar poses with a child during a Mac’s Gift event ____ when?. Cosmo is among the special visitors, such as Santa and superheroes, who come to the event each year. (Charami Boyter) Kathy forwarded this one to me from an email, and the email didn’t specify. I’m working on a photo!

The following night is a parents-only dinner that allows parents to pick presents for their children. Cheryl said for many families, these gifts will be their only Christmas, and they want families to have something under the tree for Christmas morning.

She also said when parents arrive, they fill bags for all their children — not just their sick child — because cancer affects the entire family.

“We’ve always wanted the other children, the siblings, to feel included and important,” she said.

The next night, the entire family arrives at the Nu Skin building for dinner, games and a visit from Mr. and Mrs. Claus. The children play with the BYU men’s basketball team, pick out a present from “Santa’s Workshop” and interact with princesses, superheroes and other characters. Cheryl said there’s also a gift for the mother, a gift for the father and usually some kind of present for the entire family.

“It’s sad to see so many children in our community that need this,” Cheryl said. “But at the same time, it’s gratifying to know that … they’re also able to come and enjoy the party and the events and receive the gifts that people have so generously donated to them.”

Santa’s helpers

It’s not just the children who benefit. For the BYU men’s basketball team, volunteering each year at the Mac’s Gift event is a special tradition.

Junior forward Luke Worthington said it’s fun to brighten the children’s lives by playing games with them.

“It’s not like it’s a burden to go over there and rebound on a little hoop or do these little things with these kids,” he said.

Sophomore guard TJ Haws said the event helps the team get into the true spirit of Christmas.

“As basketball players here at BYU, we’re super blessed to be in this position and to go out there and spend a night,” Haws said.

The BYU men’s basketball team has made a tradition out of attending the Mac’s Gift event each year. Head coach Dave Rose said the experience brings a lot of good to their team. (Charami Boyter)

Coach Dave Rose added, “For me personally, watching our guys interact with those kids and then listen(ing) to the conversations that they have the next two or three days, talking about these families and their problems and their challenges, it brings a lot of good to our team.”

Cheryl said the Mac’s Gift event is a blessing for the basketball team during a time of year when they’re focused on games and school. She said though it would be easy to get wrapped up in themselves, the event is an opportunity for them to step back and see the good they can do for these children.

“To watch them interact with these children and to be so kind and sweet to children that have gone through so much is really an experience these young men will never forget,” she said.

It’s an experience the families don’t forget, either.

Utah native Mark Austin’s daughter Emily was first diagnosed with leukemia in 1998 when she was five years old. She passed away in 2012 at the age of 19, after her cancer relapsed four times throughout her life.

The Austins were one of the first families to participate in Mac’s Gift, starting the year Emily was diagnosed. Mark Austin remembers when Emily was small and the BYU basketball players would put her on their knees and talk to her.

In particular, they got to know then-BYU basketball star Travis Hansen. Though he went on to play professional basketball for the Atlanta Hawks as well as overseas, he continued to support Emily.

Emily Austin, center, smiles with Cosmo the Cougar at the 2002 Mac’s Gift event. Emily was diagnosed with leukemia in 1998 at age five and later passed away in 2012 at age 19. (Mark Austin)

“He was a great help to Emily, not just at the parties, but just someone she could reach out to and talk to,” Austin said. “So it was bigger connections then just at the parties. There were some really great players there.” 

Austin said the best part of Mac’s Gift is connecting with families going through the same hardships.

“Just to be able to see someone’s connections with other people with what they’re going through is probably one of the biggest joys that I see,” he said.

Getting involved

Cheryl said though doctors can’t give cancer patients’ contact information, Primary Children’s Hospital puts information about the party in patient’s packages. Word-of-mouth has also been key in reaching families with sick children. The families, however, have to contact the Mac’s Gift Foundation themselves if they’d like to be included.

People can donate cash or toys through the Mac’s Gift website, where they can also apply to be volunteers at the event. BYU students in particular, Cheryl said, would be amazing volunteers.

“The students at BYU, they have such good hearts,” she said.