Brandt's legacy: Good deeds still being done in honor of 9-year-old cancer victim

News-DemocratJanuary 19, 2014 

Joe and Megan Sustar and their three daughters were eating lunch at Steak 'n Shake in south St. Louis County when they discovered their check already had been paid.

A customer had left them a card on "Team Brandt," a movement of people doing random acts of kindness in honor of Brandt Ballenger.

Brandt, 9, of Swansea, died of cancer in July. But he lived long enough to inspire thousands with his courage and determination.

"We thought (the meal treat) was wonderful," said Megan, 36, of Belleville, a stay-at-home mom. "We were thrilled that our girls were there to witness such a kind act of love."

The customer who bought the Sustars' lunch is Don Ballenger, 67, of Belleville, Brandt's grandfather. He also has paid for food ordered by cars behind him at drive-through windows.

Don's wife, Robin, manages the Team Brandt Facebook page with Brandt's father, Jeff, and mother, also named Robin. It's a place where people can report their good deeds and share positive messages.

"It also keeps people aware of childhood cancer," said grandma Robin, 60, a hospital secretary. "Unless you're involved in it, you don't have any idea what these kids go through. It affects the entire family and all their friends."

Shocking diagnosis

Brandt was an outgoing boy with a sweet smile and twinkling blue eyes. He attended Wolf Branch Elementary School, played soccer and T-ball and loved to swim, tell jokes and give hugs.

Brandt seemed fine until Oct. 29, 2011, when blood in his urine prompted his parents to take him to the emergency room. Doctors discovered Wilms' tumor, a rare kidney cancer that primarily affects children.

The 7-year-old's Stage 4 mass was about the size of a soccer ball, deflated and stretched out. The cancer had metastasized to his lungs.

"We played with him, we wrestled, we tickled, and nobody ever saw (the mass)," said grandpa Don, a flooring-installation supervisor. "Nobody ever felt it."

Brandt underwent months of chemotherapy to shrink the mass before it could be removed June 21, 2012. He also dealt with complications, ranging from an abdominal blood clot to a chyle leak.

The latter required Brandt to consume only 2 fat grams per day, a huge challenge. He rarely complained but longed for chocolate cake on his 8th birthday, prompting his family to find a recipe that would work.

"We bought doughnuts that were $17 a dozen off the Internet that had no fat," grandpa Don said. "We froze some of them."

Cheering up Brandt

Friends created the Facebook page to keep the public informed on Brandt's condition and cheer him up in the hospital. Followers posted photos of themselves with Team Brandt signs all over the United States.

Some people asked sports teams and celebrities, such as actor Adam Sandler and "Duck Dynasty" stars Si and Jase Robertson, to pose with signs.

"(Brandt) just got a kick out of it," said dad Jeff, 42, a leasing-company office manager. "He really liked the animal pictures."

Brandt got to take a Make-a-Wish trip to Walt Disney World in March. He also rode in a truck with St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jason Motte on last season's opening day at Busch Stadium.

Brandt died July 23, 2013, surrounded by family and friends, including off-duty doctors and nurses who had become attached to the endearing little boy.

The Ballengers continued the Facebook page, switching its focus from support network to "pay-it-forward" movement.

Kindness is contagious

In recent months, one Team Brandt follower persuaded Clayco, a St. Louis development firm, to donate five iPads to Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital. Playing electronic games was Brandt's main pastime as a patient.

People also contributed money for a Brandt Ballenger Memorial Bench at the St. Louis Zoo, one of his regular haunts.

Dozens of people have bought gift cards for sick kids at Cardinal Glennon. That website was Brandt's favorite place to shop with its giant gummies, puzzles, games and other fun stuff.

"(Gift-card distribution) can be for all sorts of occasions," said Erin Hentz, spokesman for the hospital's charitable foundation. "It can be for birthdays or getting through a procedure or hitting a milestone in their recovery. It's just a little something to brighten their day."

Today, the Team Brandt Facebook page has 9,628 followers. Several have posted photos of themselves sitting on Brandt's bench at the zoo.

"It's wonderful," said mom Robin, 40, an insurance-claims specialist. "It just gives us a great feeling to know people are doing random acts of kindness in his name."

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