On Christmas Eve of 2009, when his brain cancer had become terminal and his courageous and public three-year fight against the disease was in its final days, 17-year-old Dallasite Carson Leslie whispered to his mother, Annette.
“Mama, make sure someone studies those tumors in my brain, because if those tumors can help some kid some day not die from cancer like I am, I’d like that.”
Annette Leslie, recalling those words nearly nine years later with still-raw emotion, has made it her life’s mission to ensure that her son’s dying wishes powerfully resonate through the Carson Leslie Foundation.
The foundation’s efforts have produced more than $3.2 million in funding for pediatric cancer prevention and research while also uplifting hundreds of Children’s Health Dallas teenage cancer patients and their families in personal-touch ways that are a tribute to Carson’s memory.
And now, just in time for Christmas of 2018, a significant grant and separate in-kind donation from the Jordan Spieth Family Foundation will honor and significantly amplify the Carson Leslie Foundation’s missions.
“We were thrilled, just giddy,” Annette Leslie said. “It’s all of a sudden, boom, here we are. It’s because Jordan and Annie and the Spieth family are wildly generous. It’s something that struck a chord in both of their hearts.”
Annie, of course, is three-time major golf champion Jordan’s high school sweetheart, who, during Thanksgiving weekend, became Mrs. Jordan Spieth.
When Jordan and Annie became engaged, her voice and role and labors of love within the Spieth Family Foundation grew. It’s no coincidence that pediatric cancer was added as one of the foundation’s philanthropic pillars, joining special needs youth, junior golf and military support.
Ultimately, Annie Spieth says, the decision was made collectively by the Spieth family and the foundation’s board, but Annie’s and Jordan’s inspirations were profoundly personal. Ursuline Academy product Annie has been passionate about pediatric cancer fundraising and research ever since one of her high school classmates fought the disease. Jesuit College Preparatory product Jordan lost a friend to childhood cancer and his oldest friend, Eric, has had several cancer battles since age 12.
When the Jordan Spieth Family Foundation announced that it was adding pediatric cancer as a pillar, the Carson Leslie Foundation was one of many organizations that applied for a grant. Last week Annie Spieth met with Annette Leslie to discuss details of the JSFF grant and in-kind donation.
“Annette is unique,” Annie Spieth says. “She is so passionate. The passion behind what she is doing is so obvious when you talk to her, which is definitely inspiring and makes you want to help.
“But I think, deeper than that, there are two things I love about what they are doing. One, the bigger picture in funding research, because obviously at the end of the day, we’re not going to put an end to childhood cancer without doing that research. And then also I think with the backpack program they do, it’s a very unique way of helping kids in need.”
The foundation’s Backpack Project was launched in 2016. Its genesis stems from the Leslie family’s experience from Carson’s cancer diagnoses and abrupt hospitalization on October 30, 2006.
When Carson was taken to the emergency room, the family had no idea he would be admitted to Children’s Health. They arrived with no essentials. No pajama bottoms. No overnight kit with toothbrush, toothpaste, comb. Children’s Health had a supply cabinet of just-in-case items for child patients, but not teenagers.
The Leslie family would come to learn, through their dire circumstances, that Children’s Health annually treats about 400 teens for cancer. And that cancer is the most deadly disease among American children.
So in 2016, the Leslie Foundation’s Backpack Project began. Newly diagnosed and relapsed teenage cancer patients at Children’s Health are furnished a backpack full of essentials, including pajama pants, socks, a large cozy blanket and overnight kit.
And in a bit of eventual symmetry — or perhaps fate — the backpacks are made by Under Armour, one of Jordan Spieth’s major sponsors.
The Spieth Family Foundation’s in-kind donation will provide 100-plus additional backpacks to Children’s Health patients in 2019, and the monetary grant creates the potential for the Backpack Program to expand to other cancer hospitals in North Texas and around the state, as well as cancer research funding.
More symmetry: Like Carson Leslie, Jordan and Annie Spieth grew up in the Preston Hollow area. Like Jordan and Annie, Carson attended a private school, Covenant of Dallas, where he, too, was a standout athlete. Jordan and Annie are about the same age that Carson would have been.
And among the personal-touch backpack items are handwritten and decorated notes from the You’ve Got Mail campus organization at Ursuline, Annie’s alma mater.
“This is just something that really fits,” Annette Leslie says of the Spieth Family Foundation partnership. “And it’s going to be a giant blessing to expand outside our backdoor here. Because Jordan’s reach is well beyond Dallas.”
Says Annie Spieth: “It’s really neat to see this all come to fruition. Their foundation is doing great work. It’s exciting to be part of it, for sure.”
The Carson Leslie Foundation has uplifted numerous North Texas teens, but one in particular has a special tie to professional golf and, by extension, Spieth.
He is Jacob Senden, son of PGA Tour veteran, Australia native and longtime Flower Mound resident John Senden.
Jacob was diagnosed with a brain tumor in April 2017 at age 13, a year younger than Carson Leslie when he was diagnosed. Jacob, too, was admitted to Children’s Health, where he received an Under Armour backpack full of essentials.
Like fellow teen cancer patients at Children’s Health, Jacob Senden appreciated having a getaway place at the hospital, the Carson’s Corner room on the sixth floor.
As his treatment continued, Jacob also got to join fellow teen patients at two of the three sports excursions that the Leslie Foundation annually arranges through the Cowboys, Mavericks and Rangers. The teens are picked up in a limo and taken to a game, where they watch from a suite.
Jacob attended Rangers and Cowboys games this year. His mother, Jackie, remarked to Annette that she hadn’t seen Jacob that happy in a long time, and that the outings helped him get through treatment.
Jacob’s diagnoses became public in the spring of 2017, when Spieth and other AT&T Byron Nelson players wore pins to honor Jacob and the Senden family. The pins bore the image of a Rubik’s cube, one of Jacob’s favorite toys.
Jacob’s treatments have proven effective and his most recent scan was clean, said Annette, who has become friends with the Sendens. Annette went to Colonial in May to watch John play in the Fort Worth Invitational.
“We really, really get one another,” Annette says. “It’s an awful club we’re placed in together.”
Annette recently approached Jackie with an idea: How about placing Rubik’s cubes in the backpacks starting in 2019 to honor Jacob? Jackie, of course, was elated, but where would the cubes come from? Who would pay for them?
A week later, Annette says, one of the Carson Leslie Foundation’s corporate partners, Austin-based Dell Computer Corporation, called her, asking what the foundation needed for 2019. Voila. Dell has agreed to provide 800 Rubik’s cubes next year.
“There’s a wide collaboration of people behind this,” Annette says.
A collaboration that now includes the Spieth Family Foundation.
As part of Carson Leslie’s considerable legacy, teen cancer patients’ backpacks also include two Carson-specific mementos.
One is a blank journal book. Throughout his cancer battle, Carson chronicled his thoughts and emotions and observations in a journal.
Entries from his journal were compiled into a book, Carry Me, that was published on January 7, 2010, five days before Carson Leslie died.
All Under Armour backpacks given to teen cancer patients, of course, include the most essential memento of all: Carry Me, which also is in the Library of Congress and has sold more than 10,000 copies.
“Even though every day of my life is a battle, I have learned that God is always there to lift me up, and I live each day as if it were the Day of Judgment,” Carson Leslie wrote in the book. “I believe my story will give readers a new perspective on the importance of how words and/or actions affect those around them.
“I wish to make a difference, and I know others my age want to do the same. Maybe after they read my book, they will discover how to live the struggle.”