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Returning the hugs

By Susie Woodhams
Published February 16, 2007


Sherry Tucker spilled a fistful of small, thin packages onto her coffee table. Some bore tiny bows and intricate borders. A few were covered in red felt with diamonds cut into the fabric.

Inside each was a gift card for gasoline, groceries, restaurants or movie rentals, plus a small piece of paper with fluted edges. Its opening line reads: "You have just received a hug and a prayer from Zachary's Stocking!"

Or, as Tucker sometimes calls the dainty gift cards, Band-Aids for families hurting from cancer.

"Maybe it will brighten someone's day, help them get through," Tucker said. "I just know when cancer strikes, it can be so devastating and not fair financially for some families."

It's why Tucker wants the project she launched during the Christmas season to become a year-round effort, with proceeds from the second annual Zach Tucker Golf Scramble in April potentially funding a foundation for cancer victims.

Zach is the 8-year-old son she lost to cancer in May, 10 months after he was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor rarely found in children.

The 42-year-old Valrico mother has since become a crusader against pediatric cancers, addressing Tampa and Brandon-area groups in hopes of raising awareness. Sometimes, something ordinary - a song or the sight of boys racing on her street - brings a new wave of sadness. Tucker felt it when she put up Christmas decorations in December and found Zach's stocking.

"I'm not sure it bothered Dirk and Lexi as much as it did me," Tucker said of her husband and 12-year-old daughter. "But when we came upon the stocking, I said, 'Well, what are we going to do?' and they said, 'Get it out! Hang it up!' And I was like, 'Okay.' But it bothered me that it would sit there and be empty and make us sad."

A few nights later at the Randall Middle School holiday concert, she bumped into a woman whose husband had been diagnosed with colon cancer about the same time Zach began his battle. The woman said they were managing, but had to downsize to accommodate the mounting financial burden.

"She was brave, but I recognized in her face so many things that I had felt," Tucker said. "I thought, 'We have to do something to help this family.' "

That night, Tucker found a new purpose for Zach's stocking. In her Christmas cards, she asked friends to help fill it with gift cards to give to families dealing with cancer.

Donations pour in

Within a few weeks, the stocking grew heavy - with more than $3,500 worth of gift cards even before Christmas.

At the same time, the need grew. In addition to the family dealing with colon cancer, Tucker dropped off a bag of gift cards and other treats and toys to Jessica Rose Kohut, a 4-year-old Lithia girl who was diagnosed Dec. 16 with a cancer that affects nerve cells.

Another 10 packages were delivered to the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center with instructions that they be given away on Christmas Day to the neediest families.

"And I still have some to give," she said.

Groups like the Children's Cancer Center of Tampa provide financial assistance to families working with social workers. But Tucker knows that not every family, like hers, will ask for help.

While her husband continued to work as an engineer, Tucker quit her accounting job to care for Zach, who underwent surgery, out-of-state radiation treatments and chemotherapy.

When friends offered financial help, the Tuckers at first declined. But gift cards would appear on their doorstep. Friends staged a garage sale, then an Italian dinner and silent auction. Ultimately, the community raised nearly $60,000, including $35,000 from a golf event and dinner in April.

"They were a little hesitant, I think, because it's hard to be on the receiving end of so much giving," said Debbie Brus, a family friend who organized the golf event. "I don't want to say we strong-armed her into accepting it, but basically we did."

Finding life's purpose

Since Zach's death, Tucker said, she has gained strength by helping others. With Riverview's Holly Wirth and Lithia's Heather Duckworth, who also have lost children to cancer in the past three years, she organized a community garage sale in October that raised more than $15,000 for the family of Taylor Arrington, a Randall Middle School student who has bone cancer.

"You wonder when you go through this process what the purpose of life is, what it's all about," Tucker said. "What it has shown (us) is, it's about having faith in God, helping people and leaving this world a better place than when you came. When you have a child who is waiting for you in heaven, you have a whole different vision of what needs to be done."


. if you go

On the links

What: Second annual Zach Tucker Golf Scramble

When: April 20

Where: Bloomingdale Golfers Club, 4113 Great Golfers Club, Valrico. For more information, e-mail or


[Last modified February 15, 2007, 07:56:00]

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