By Britney Grover
Pediatric cancer: Anyone would wish it didn’t exist. Some would like to ignore that it does. Even after surviving it, Brandon Phillips tried to forget about it. “It was 1992 when I was sick, and for many years I never wanted to speak about it,” he said. “I never wanted to do anything; I just put it out of my mind and wanted to forget about it like it didn’t happen.”
When Brandon was 14, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Doctors told his parents — who did not tell him — that Brandon had six weeks to live. Brandon defied the prognoses and went into remission after five intensive months of treatment. He was happy to return to life as a normal teenager, with a renewed appreciation for the passions he enjoyed — including polo. At just 17, two years after beating cancer, Brandon launched a successful career as a professional polo player.
“Finally, when I got into my 30s, I decided it was time to give back and to start helping families experiencing pediatric cancer,” he said. The organization began with a polo benefit game to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Their first one-day event, dubbed Polo for a Purpose, raised $40,000. “We thought we did a great job. Then each year it got bigger and bigger, leading up to last year, our most successful year ever — we raised $540,000 that day.”
Helping families dealing with pediatric cancer is much more than one day a year for Brandon. The annual event spurred the creation of its own foundation, Polo for Life, and has raised over $1.8 million to help those affected by childhood cancer. Brandon’s goal is to be five times that amount — and much of the money raised is now going directly to local families in the Wellington, Florida, area.
Help Where it’s Needed
For the first five years, Polo for a Purpose benefited the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Though he knew the money was being put to good use, Brandon was driven to do more and work with other charities. That would also give him the opportunity to have more control over exactly what the money he helped raise was being used for.
Two years ago, he created his own 501(c)(3) charity and named it Polo for Life. The expanded beneficiaries list now includes Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital, the Miami Cancer Institute, POST — Pediatric Oncology Support Team, and the Kids Cancer Foundation. From the 2020 event, each group received a check for $90,000. Polo for Life has a good relationship with each one, and is able to specify what programs the money will go toward.
As a foundation, Polo for Life is unique. “Thankfully, one of our main sponsors is Postage Stamp Farm Foundation,” Brandon said. “Their annual donation enables us to cover any type of administration costs of running the foundation, so every dollar people donate is going directly to the kids.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, things have changed for Polo for Life — in how they’re raising money, and in how that money is being funneled to kids and families affected by pediatric cancer even more directly than ever before. “Fortunately, when I was sick there wasn’t a financial bind for us due to the Canadian healthcare system,” Brandon shared. “But I know what the kids feel, I know what the parents feel, I know how families react — when a child gets cancer it’s not just the child. It’s the siblings, it’s the mother, it’s the father, it’s the uncles and the aunts; the whole family is affected by it.”
In a situation relatively few people can understand — Brandon is one of them that does. “I know firsthand the fear and uncertainty day to day of what’s going on,” he said. “I’ve had lots of talks and met with these kids and these families, and I can relate. The last thing they need to worry about, on top of all of this, is how they’re going to pay a car payment, or a mortgage payment. These are the things we try to ease for the family so they can concentrate on supporting their child and their family.”
To that end, Brandon and Polo for Life have turned to helping specific, local families. Families in financial crisis reach out through POST or the Kids Cancer Foundation, and Polo for Life steps in to help. “Generally, when your child is diagnosed, one parent has to stop working to look after the child, and now with COVID, a lot of times both parents have lost their jobs,” Brandon said. “There were local families that didn’t even have the money to buy gas to drive their kids to treatments or they’d lost their car because they couldn’t make car payments. We started to develop this program to help alleviate the financial challenges of families.”
Becoming a Resource
When a family’s rent, mortgage, car payments, electrical bills, insurance bills or whatever need to be paid, Polo for Life assesses the situation and often provides financial assistance for three months at a time, paid directly to creditors. After three months, they revisit the family and reassess their needs. Sadly, that has also included underwriting several funerals. “That was horrible, but many of these people come to us and can’t even afford to bury their child,” Brandon said. “We step in and at least try to help in that way. We’re helping with everything across the board for these local families.”
Normally, Polo for a Purpose is held each January on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The 2021 event was cancelled due to the pandemic, yet Polo for Life hasn’t stopped helping — or raising money. In December, they put on a benefit country concert and raised nearly $16,000. They’ve been hosting private dinners to educate people about how they can help families in need.
“It’s just amazing the number of local problems we don’t even know about,” Brandon said. “We’re sitting in our bubble in Wellington, and we’re mad because our horse didn’t show well today or we lost a polo game. And there are families 10 minutes away that are having their power turned off and their kids are dying of cancer and they can’t afford to get treatment. So many fortunate people are not touched by pediatric cancer, so our mission is to educate them about the vast number of families in our backyard that are really struggling.”
In addition to expanding financial support, Brandon’s goal is for Polo for Life to be the go-to resource for families going through the trial of pediatric cancer, from financial assistance to information on where to go or what doctors could best help them. Someday, Brandon would love to help fund a treatment bus similar to mobile blood banks, that would save families from driving three or four hours each way just to get cancer treatment for their child.
In the meantime, Polo for Life is living up to its name. Powered by a very strong board of directors, Polo for Life is constantly raising money to ease the financial burden of families in crisis fighting pediatric cancer. Board members PJ Rizvi, Rita Reik and Visse Wedell join Brandon in their determination to make a difference — to raise enough capital so parents can focus on what’s more important than money: saving their child’s life.
“That’s exactly it; that’s why I started this,” Brandon said. “We can take some of the heat off of these families. It’s amazing how many people just didn’t realize that there’s someone 10 minutes away who can’t afford their electric bill, but when they do, it really resonates with them. Now it’s just getting the word out, and getting the donations to help however we can.”
For more information, visit poloforlife.org