After losing his son Zachary to cancer in 1999, Joe Hebda established the Zachary Hebda Foundation to win the fight against childhood cancer in his son’s memory.
Twenty years later, the foundation has raised over $712,000 and funded more than 1,200 hours of research at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center.
Zachary Hebda was diagnosed with leukemia in 1998 at the age of 5. He was a kindergartner at St. Jane Frances School, took ice-skating lessons at Piney Orchard, and his favorite subject in school was art.
“When Zack was in Johns Hopkins, he asked his doctors why he got cancer and other kids did not,” said Joe. “That led to the doctors talking to a kindergartener about healthy cells and cancerous cells, and how cancer infects healthy cells. Dr. Megan Higman, who was the chief resident for pediatric oncology at the time, with support from Dr. Alan Chen, gave Zack a tour of the lab and spent about two hours with him looking at his cells and other cells.”
Zachary was always involved during his full-body radiation treatments and spinal taps, according to Joe.
“He was there when the doctors would talk about the effects; he was inquisitive about everything that happened to him,” said Joe.
Zachary received a bone marrow transplant from his mother, but passed away as a result of infection. While running in a 5K race put on by students at Johns Hopkins University after Zachary’s death, Joe was encouraged by friends and coworkers to host a race in his son’s memory.
“Zack was interested in cancer research, so that seemed like the thing to fund,” said Joe. “The foundation grew from that.”
The Zachary Hebda Foundation was started in the fall of 1999, and the first Zack’s Run 5K was in September 2000. There were 719 runners in the first race. Joe’s family and a few coworkers have been spearheading the organization ever since.
Every year, Zack’s Run is held in September to observe Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. A bone marrow drive is also held each year at the race to find a matching donor for someone on the transplant list.
In 2004, the first Hebda Foundation Gala was hosted at the University of Maryland, and the event has since outgrown two locations. Local businesses donate goods and services to be auctioned off to celebrate the year’s successes and give back to benefactors and beneficiaries of the organization.
“We have one of the pediatric oncology ambassadors speak,” said Joe. “These are true heroes. [They are] usually middle or high schoolers with cancer.”
Pediatric oncology ambassadors are children who are fighting cancer and who tell their stories to spread awareness and inspire others.
Fundraising from the gala benefits Camp Sunrise, a summer camp for kids with cancer. Campers participate in any tradition camp activity in an effort to make them feel “normal” for a week and establish relationships with people going through similar experiences.
“It’s, in a way, a magical place,” said Joe. “They go to a summer camp like any other kid does. It’s a place where they can be like kids who don’t have cancer.”
Over 304 hours of play have been funded by the Hebda Foundation. Additional money from the gala and from the 5k are used to fund pediatric research at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, which is considered to be one of the leading cancer centers in the United States.
Research conducted at this institution has discovered new treatments and protocols for childhood cancer.
“We have a close relationship with Johns Hopkins, and our relationship with Camp Sunrise is wonderful,” said Joe. “Because of the relationship with Hopkins, we were able to create an endowment to fund the research.”
All money raised goes into the endowment, which gains interest, ensuring that money will always be available to Johns Hopkins.
“Putting funds in the endowment means that forever there will be monies from the Zachary Hebda Foundation funding research,” said Joe, “all because a 5-year-old was inquisitive.”
Joe said the relationship built with Johns Hopkins and hearing its progress is the reason he’s kept going for these 20 years.
Though it hasn’t always been easy, the Zachary Hebda Foundation has made an impact.
“What keeps us going is getting to interact with the kids at camp and hearing about the research and funding,” said Joe. “Our first race management company told us we wouldn’t make it three years. So, here we are 20 years later.”