BREWER — Giving away hot chocolate is one way to warm the heart and also raise awareness and funds for cancer research, four local girls have learned.
The three daughters of Mike and Lisa Openshaw, and a niece, started a hot cocoa stand five years ago to raise money for a local toddler with cystic fibrosis, but the following year shifted their effort to cancer research after learning their dad was diagnosed with metastatic pheochromocytoma, a rare and terminal form of neuroendocrine cancer.
“We’re all here to raise money to help fight cancer … to help fight this horrible disease,” said Abby Sargent, 11, who along with her sisters Jessica Sargent, 13, and Torri Openshaw, 12, and cousin, Jaclyn Cyr, 15, of Holden run the hot chocolate stand in front of 47 Bowdoin Drive.
The girls spend every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night in December before Christmas and Christmas Eve handing out the hot beverage to anyone driving by looking at the holiday lights. Many recipients give a donation in exchange for the steaming cocoa.
By giving away the hot beverage, the girls have raised in excess of $20,000 over the last four years for cancer research through Relay for Life of Penobscot County. The girls’ grandmother, Ellen Openshaw, is a cancer survivor.
“This is awesome,” said one man who exited his truck Friday night to get a cup of cocoa and give a donation to cancer research. “What a great cause.”
“We wanted to do a lemonade stand but because it was winter we knew it would not work out so we decided to do hot cocoa and we’ve been doing it for the past five years,” Abby Sargent said. “It means a lot to all of us that we have people come out and they support us every year. They think we’re doing something great but they’re helping us just by coming.”
Mike Openshaw was diagnosed with cancer nearly four years ago and is receiving treatment at the Lafayette Family Cancer Center of Brewer, and other hospitals.
“I’ve done a bunch of different types of treatments, all experimental,” he said, Friday night in his kitchen while taking a break from the cold. “None of them are cures but what they do do is … slow the growth. So I actually have, in the course of three and a half years, just a little bit more cancer than when I started.”
The American Cancer Society selected Mike to serve as honorary chair for the 2013 Relay For Life of Penobscot County and Jessica was selected as the honorary chair for the 2014 relay earlier this year. In addition to the hot cocoa stand, she also has organized fundraisers on her last two birthdays instead of asking for presents. Information about their Relay for Life team is available at oteam.org.
The family’s story has moved many, including employees at Machias Saving Bank, who made a donation in their honor last year and this year is supplying all the hot chocolate and the cups.
Mike Openshaw said much of his strength is gone, which is why some of his Christmas decorations remain in the family’s garage, and he was clearly winded Friday night after an hour outside supporting the girl’s efforts.
While the cancer and its treatments have stripped him of his role as “superman” they have also kept the cancer at bay to give him time to be home with his wife and kids so he can help with homework, attend their sporting events and even cook dinner.
He said he and his wife broke the news to the girls that he was terminal a little bit at a time.
His oldest daughter, Jessica, said at first she didn’t understand what her stepfather’s diagnosis meant because she was so young.
“Mike looked totally fine and it didn’t look like anything was wrong with him,” Jessica Sargent said. “But then as I got older, he got sicker and it was hard because Mike was the only dad I ever had.”
“After he got sick it was really hard on us and that is why the hot cocoa stand is so important to us because it’s a way for us to raise money for him and it gives us hope that one day, maybe before he passes away or after, that there won’t be cancer anymore,” the 13-year-old said. “It just gives us a lot of hope and I tell people come enjoy it and have a good time and try to celebrate all the survivors.”
All of the girls feel the same way, the youngest in the group said.
“I know I’m helping my father and I love him,” Abby Sargent said. “I hope that someday cancer is gone and everybody is healthy and happy.”
Jessica Sargent said she has one piece of advice for those who have cancer.
“Don’t give up,” she said. “You also can’t sit around waiting for a miracle to happen. You have to try and do something about it … like what we’re trying to do with all the relay stuff. Hope doesn’t just come, you’ve got to work for it.”
The Sargent-Openshaw house is off Gettysburg Drive off North Main Street in Brewer and is surrounded by a number of other homes decorated for the holidays.
“Santa is here every Saturday night and there is always a fire in the driveway for people to watch the lights and tell stories about how cancer has touched their lives,” Openshaw said.