Traverse City Events: TC National Writers Series Guest Gretchen Witt

Traverse City Events: Gretchen Witt is a powerhouse in the food industry, having overseen PR for such brands as KitchenAid Cookware, Chicago Cutlery, Anolon and OXO/Good Grips. But nearly five years ago, her career achievements took a back seat when her then 2-and-a-half-year-old son Liam was diagnosed with stage IV pediatric cancer. Discovering a lack of research funding about the disease, she decided to hold a bake sale to try and raise money for the cause. In December of 2007, Witt sold an astonishing 96,000 cookies and raised $400,000 for cancer research.
 
Since then, her foundation, Cookies for Kids Cancer, has held over 2,000 bake sales in 49 states and raised millions of dollars for cancer research. Women’s Day magazine named Witt one of its 50 "Women Who Are Changing the World," and she’s been profiled by such media outlets as Martha Stewart, The Today Show, CNN, Parade, Redbook, O Magazine and Ladies Home Journal. This Thursday, September 8, Witt will appear at a joint partnership event between the National Writers Series and the Epicurean Classic at the City Opera House in downtown Traverse City to share her inspiring story with audiences. In a recent phone interview, MyNorth spoke to Witt about her charitable foundation, her new cookbook Best Bake Sale Cookbook, and how she was able to turn a bake sale into a national movement.
 
MyNorth: Bake sales are often thought of as fundraisers for smaller causes – a local organization, for example, or a specific event. Where did the idea of using a bake scale model to benefit something as large in scope as pediatric cancer research begin?
 
Gretchen Witt: Liam was diagnosed at the age of 2-and-a-half with pediatric cancer, which is a common age to be diagnosed. It’s called the silent killer, because there are no smoking gun symptoms of the disease. The first time I met with the oncologist, I looked at him imploringly and said, “I don’t understand. How can my son have cancer?” And that’s when I learned this is the number one disease killer of children in the United States. I was dumbfounded, because I’d never heard that statistic. His next sentence is what really struck me, though. He said: “That’s because kids don’t make headlines.” I told him, “You take care of my son. I will make sure kids get headlines.”
 
When I said that, I realized my entire life – everything I’d done personally and professionally – was a dress rehearsal for that moment. Because one of the things I do with my work is build relationships and help get the word out about different causes. We discovered early on that not only does pediatric cancer receive very little awareness, it receives very little funding. We learned there was a possible treatment sitting on a shelf, but there wasn’t funding for it. When I was brainstorming things I could do to raise money, I thought, “Well, I know how to bake. And I know a lot of people who know how to bake.” We were approaching the holidays, and providing a gift of homemade cookies – where a large percentage of the proceeds would directly benefit pediatric cancer research – seemed like an idea that could work. Cancer is the monster in the closet no one likes to talk about, so I knew we needed something inviting and innocent – like cookies – that people couldn’t turn away from. We set a goal of 96,000 cookies for the first bake sale. We met that goal, and were able to raise over $400,000 for cancer research.
 
MyNorth: Did the success of the first event convince you this was a model that could be replicated?
 
Gretchen Witt: After the ovens cooled, we realized we’d hit a nerve with people. A cancer diagnosis is scary at any age, and it makes people feel helpless. When you add a child to the equation, it’s even scarier. So if you can give people a tangible way to get involved and make a difference, it reduces their helplessness. My husband and I decided to launch a nonprofit foundation that would give people the tools to get involved wherever they were in the country, in whatever way they wanted. In September 2008, Cookies for Kids Cancer opened for year-round business, encouraging people to hold events in their area.
 
MyNorth: You have a number of personal and professional relationships within the culinary industry. How did that community step up and get involved in the cause?
 
Gretchen Witt: The first call I made was to (cookbook author) Sally Sampson. She’s been a good friend of mine for a long time. As women, we all have that one friend who will tell you the truth and give it to you straight. That’s Sally for me. When I called her and told her I was thinking of making 96,000 cookies and asked her if it was a crazy idea, she didn’t miss a beat before responding, “Oh sure, you can do that.” It was her blessing that gave me the encouragement to move ahead with it. Then the word got out, and people started volunteering to help. Sally gave us three of her own special cookie recipes for Best Bake Sale Cookbook. (Renowned photographer) Carl Tremblay donated his time to take photos for the book. I’ll never forget looking up one night while we were preparing for the first bake sale, and seeing the entire food staff of Gourmet magazine tying little ribbons to cookie packages. Another time I looked up, the food writer for The New York Times was sweeping the floors. The entire staff of Food & Wine magazine was there. Bobby Flay’s production crew from his television show were there. It seemed like everyone I had ever met or worked with in the food industry stepped up to the plate to help us out.
 
MyNorth: Best Bake Sale Cookbook compiles the best recipes to use when hosting your own bake sale, along with stories of those who’ve been involved in hosting sales or have a connection to pediatric cancer. Talk a little about how the book project came together.
 
Gretchen Witt: At the time we made the decision to move forward with the book, Liam had relapsed – not once, not twice, not three times, but four times with cancer. Things were very hectic. Plus, I was working a full-time job. So the thing that was most important to me was the quality of the book. I thought, “People really don’t need another cookbook. What they could use is a little slice of inspiration.” To include those stories in the book was key, because it’s inspiring to hear how and why all these people were moved to get involved. To date, 49 of the 50 states have hosted bake sales to raise funds for pediatric cancer research, which is an amazing number.
 
MyNorth: What impact will the funds being raised through these bake sales and cookbook sales have on pediatric cancer research?
 
Gretchen Witt: I think most people have the assumption, as I did, that it takes tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars to make any impact on cancer research. But in the three years we’ve been up and running, we’ve helped to fund ten new treatments or pediatric cancer trials. Essentially we’ve given ten “at-bats” to research, where you have another chance of trying another type of treatment. We know four children personally from our very small world of cancer who have benefited from treatments we’ve helped to fund. We’re in the process right now of funding another seven trials. The first treatment – the inspiration behind the original 96,000 cookie event – just became available about 10 days ago, and children are already receiving it.
 
At the time this all began, my son had been cleared as being cancer-free. I didn’t think I was doing it for him. I thought I was doing it because it was the right thing to do, that it was my moral responsibility. Little did I know how desperately he was eventually going to need it. (Ed note: Tragically, Liam lost his battle with pediatric cancer on January 24, 2011.) It’s satisfying to now hear that treatment is available; it’s also frustrating, because I don’t think I’ve done anything unusual or that anybody else couldn’t have done. It just needed a catalyst to happen, and my love for my son was that catalyst. My love for children was that catalyst. Now, I just need for other people to get involved.
 
An Evening with Gretchen Witt, a National Writers Series and Epicurean Classic partnership event, will take place on Thursday, September 8 at the City Opera House in Traverse City. Doors open at 6 p.m.; the event begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 and are available at the City Opera House or online at cityoperahouse.org. The evening will include a pre-event live performance by harpist Kate Gordon, as well as an audience Q&A and post-event dessert reception and book signing with the author, featuring gourmet baked goods for sale from area restaurants and vendors. Reception proceeds will benefit the Cookies for Kids Cancer foundation. For more information, visit nationalwritersseries.org.

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