Tara Sankner is celebrating her 10th birthday with a Music Makes Life Better show on February 3rd at Jammin' Java. She plays softball in Vienna for The Galaxy, loves Taylor Swift, and reads comic books. She likes to draw, but is better at cartoons and Minecraft than faces. At eight years old she was diagnosed with astrocytoma, a form of brain cancer.
In March 2013, shortly after her diagnosis, she began chemotherapy treatments. "I was very sick," says Tara, "I would just come home and get sick." Her mother, Tammy, tells me how tired she was the day of and days following treatment.
"Her teachers and school were really good about it. She would bring a pillow and blanket to school, and would go down to the clinic if she needed to take a nap." If she slept longer than an hour and a half, the nurse would call Tammy to let her know that Tara might need to go home for the day.
Tara has been in remission since her last treatment in July 2014, but she still makes plenty of trips to the doctor for check ups and evaluations. February 4th, the day after her birthday event, she will get the MRI results that will tell her if she needs another round of chemotherapy treatment.
When I ask Tara why she wanted to host a benefit concert for her birthday she tells me, "I don't really want anything for my birthday. I don't need anything, so I wanted to give something back." The show, featuring Boogiehawg's 10 year reunion + Todd Wright + Cassidy Ford, will benefit Stillbrave childhood cancer foundation and the Sankner family to help with medical bills.
The Sankners were introduced to Stillbrave shortly after Tara was diagnosed. Just before Christmas, one of their faucets broke and Tammy couldn't get anyone out to fix it in time. "One of the social worker's at the hospital told me I needed to talk to Tom," says Tammy. "The next night, he and Mike came out and replaced not one but two faucets. Tara was handing them tools while they worked."
'Tattoo' Tom Mitchell founded Stillbrave in 2009 after losing his daughter Shayla to her own battle with cancer. Stillbrave provides "Strength for the Strong," including fundraising, advocating for awareness, educational support, babysitting/respite services, handyman services, financial support, and anything else to help "fight shoulder to shoulder alongside children with cancer and their families and to one day see an end childhood cancer."
"There is nothing Tom wouldn't do to help any kid," says Tammy. After their introduction, Tom became a friend and support system for Tara and the Sankners. When things got bad for Tara and she came close to being put on a feeding tube, Tom called and asked her what she wanted to eat. Tom came to the hospital and ate fried rice with Tara while Tammy met with the doctors. "I think I'd like to be a princess for a day," Tara told him as they ate and watched Disney's Tangled.
Tammy then got a fervent phone call from Tom. "It's all lined up already," he told her. he had arranged for a horse-drawn carriage and wanted Tara to have some friends over to go for a ride-- they were going to make her a princess for a day. But it wasn't in Tom's nature to stop there. Through Stillbrave they put the word out about Tara, the Warrior Princess, and were quickly gather a crowd to line her parade.
On the day of her surprise parade, Tara says she was getting suspicious. Why am I putting on a dress?" she wondered. Tom came to her door as a King with a glass slipper, a real-life Prince Charming. Dressed in princess gowns, Tara and six of her friends ascended their carriage and began the parade.
"I was dumbfounded," says Tammy. Stillbrave volunteers were trying to keep everyone down the street for the surprise, and Tammy was called down to talk to the reporters trying to cross the crowd line. "When I crested the hill at the end of our street, I just stopped and started crying." Waiting on the other side of the hill were more than one thousand loyal "subjects" waiving colorful posters and awaiting their princess. "There were four different fire stations represented and police doing crowd control," Tammy tells me. "We shut down Stringfellow Road on a Friday night."
Tara's Princess Parade was covered by all the major news stations in the area, and even ended up on the Today Show the next morning. Craig Sankner, Tara's father, was stopped at a Walmart in Haymarket in the weeks after the parade. "Aren't you Princess Tara's dad?" a woman asked him. "I was there, I was in the crowd at her parade!"
Like a true princess, Tara wants to give back to those that have helped her along the way and to those in need. Her birthday, which is on February 17th, will be a two part event. Music Makes Life Better for Stillbrave & the Sankner Family will be followed by a second event for Special Love, another of Tara's favorite organizations.
I asked Tara if there was anything she would want other kids entering the fight against cancer to know.
"The chemo is going to be hard. Don't expect it to be easy, like a piece of cake, it's not. There are going to be hard moments and easy moments, but you know it's okay to cry. It's okay to scream. It's okay to be a kid. I had that problem, I had to be tough my whole life-- well, my whole cancer life. But you can be a kid and let loose, you know? It's okay to be a kid, you don't always have to be a grown up. (Pause) And cancer does suck."
Tammy gave similar advice to other parents beginning the terrifying road she's been down.
"Besides the fact that it sucks, I would say that there is a lot of help out there. Don't feel like you have to do it alone. You know, they say it takes a village, and it does. Reach out to friends and to family, use the resources that are out there; it's what they're there for. Don't be afraid to ask."
You can follow Tara's fight on her facebook page, Pray for Tara, or come out to celebrate her birthday at Jammin' Java on February 3rd.