Beliefnet
Inspiration Report

Devon and Leah StillDevon Still and his daughter, Leah, are a daddy-daughter combo that just can’t be beat.  You may know Devon Still from his years in the NFL playing as a defensive tackle.  He made his start at Penn State, later moved on to the Cincinnati Bengals, then to a free agent, and most recently to play for the Houston Texans until a foot injury prevented him from playing.

Still has been in the public eye for another reason apart from football.  His daughter had an unconventional addition to her childhood. She had to put up a battle with cancer starting at the age of four.  After running a fever, having loss of appetite, and complaining of leg pain, Devon sprung into action and took his daughter to the hospital. That same day he heard the words that no parent wants to hear. 

In June 2014 doctors found a tumor in Leah Still’s stomach.  Leah was diagnosed with Stage IV neuroblastoma. Neuroblastoma is a rare pediatric cancer that typically only affects children ages five and younger. There are only around 20,000 cases in the U.S. per year. Leah had a 50/50 chance of survival with this diagnosis.

Devon Still knew that he had to be there for his daughter as much as possible because of those odds.  Being in the middle of football season it became hard for Still to juggle the time needed from the team and the time that he felt needed to be spent by his daughter’s side.  The Bengals moved Still off of the roster. Still had said that he had been thinking of putting his career on hold for his daughter but the initial removal was a bit of a hard hit. The team still wanted to help him with all that he was going through, it was just hard for the Bengals to keep Still on the team when his heart was elsewhere. 

Being cut from the Bengals was a huge change to add on top of all that was going on within the Still family.  The Bengals executives did some research and discovered some benefits that could go along with being on the practice team.  So the Bengals moved Devon to the practice team in hopes of helping the situation. The Bengals health insurance covered for the practice team as well as the main team, meaning that Devon and Leah would still be covered throughout her treatments.  Devon Still would also still get paid $6,300 weekly.  Lastly, the practice team was less of a time commitment, leaving more time for Devon to fight alongside his daughter through her treatments.

Devon’s participation didn’t last for long on the practice team.  A week after being taken off the roster Still was reinstated.  The team also announced that they were going to sell his jersey and all profits would go to the Cincinnati’s Children Hospital towards those fighting pediatric cancer. Devon Stills jersey raised more than $1.3 million to benefit families dealing with childhood cancer.

Devon’s support for his daughter was never ending.  He was there for her through it all.  Being strong for her and making sure that she knew that her dad believed in her was his main goal.  In an interview Devon spoke about his support for his daughter but was asked who supports him through it all.  He said “The first person I go to is god. I started taking a walk of faith before all this happened and there had to be a reason why god decided make me come to him.“ Relying on faith, family, and friends his internal battle was made a little more bearable.  It also made it that he was 100 percent there for his daughter.

Throughout the entire battle the Still’s received mass amounts of support.  Leah starred in a promotional music video with Sara Bareilles and Cyndi Lauper singing a mash up of their songs “Brave” and “True Colors” making it “Truly Brave.” When the video was released it helped raise more than $500,000 for the American Cancer Society towards pediatric-cancer research.  On the same day as the video release day Leah underwent a nearly seven hour surgery to remove a tumor and all of her lymph nodes. Her battle experienced many ups and downs, at one point the cancer had reached her bones causing more complication that led into intensive treatment.

After 41 days of chemotherapy, 40 days of antibody therapy, 19 days of radiation and a seven hour surgery.  Leah was finally cancer free. Although her battle was tough Leah made it through and out of it came so many things. After the triumph, Leah and Devon started their own organization to help other families who had to deal with what the Still’s had to deal with.  In 2015, the Still Strong Foundation was created.  It focuses on families dealing with pediatric cancer and helps those families by giving grants to them so they don’t have to worry about non-medical bills such as mortgages and utilities.  Devon’s main focus for this organization was so that it allowed families to focus on and support their children dealing with their battle.

A couple of months ago marked Leah’s second year in remission. Since then she has participated in interviews and advocated as a spokesperson to those who are dealing with what she dealt with. She even finished her first year of school taking on first grade like it was nothing. She also got to be flower girl in her dads wedding. The Still’s continued to give even on a day that should have been about them.  The decided to throw out the idea of a wedding registry and instead asked their guests to visit, The Knot, a forum where people could choose out of four different foundations that they could donate to.

The Still’s were faced with an obstacle that so many hope to never have to deal with.  They chose faith, strength, and charity to get them through it.  Devon and Leah showed everyone that anything can happen when you don’t give up.  This duo is one that people will look up to for a long time.

You can learn more about the Still Strong Foundation at their website: https://www.stillstrongfoundation.org

 

 

 

A mom and her six sons are inspiring others with their dedication and compassion for others.  Phoebe Kannisto could be considered a supermom.  She is the mother to six sons and one daughter.  Her sons, Andre who is 10, identical twins Silas and Emerson who are eight, and fraternal triplets Herbie, Reed, and Dexter who are five, have shown that bullies are no match to doing the right thing.  Just having seven kids is not what makes her a supermom; it is the lessons that she is teaching them.

The Cheektowaga, New York natives collectively grew out and donated over 17-feet of hair. Ranging from one to five years, some of the boys’ hair took longer than others to get it to the length needed for donating. Nonetheless, it was a family effort and they all waited to get it cut together.

Phoebe Kannisto had been growing and donating her hair since she was a teenager. She did not get the notion to do it with her sons until one of her friend’s sons had passed away due to cancer. “Three years ago a friend of mine lost her son to cancer and he was also a twin and very similar in age to my twins.  So on the first anniversary of his passing my three oldest sons donated their hair in his memory and that’s kind of how it started,” she said in an interview with ABC News. And, the rest is history.

Her husband, Eric Kannisto, works as a cancer research scientist prompting her even more to instill this want in her family to donate hair to children, specifically those battling with cancer. Having younger children involved, Kannisto understands that that idea can be somewhat dense or hard to grasp but she claims that the boys view in as positive manor as possible.  She ensures them that they are doing the right thing by helping children who are sick.  “It makes me feel a bit better about myself knowing that I can do something to make somebody else happy,” said one son in an interview with ABC News. The children’s outlook is centered on the idea of putting someone else in high spirits.

As if this story could not get anymore charitable, the hair salon that chopped the family’s hair, Hizair Hair Salon, refused to take any payment.  The inspired stylists claimed that since they were donating hair than they were going to donate their time. It was even said that some of the stylists were working overtime but still did not want any form of payment. The charity that the family donated to was the Children with Hair Loss foundation; it is a nonprofit organization that provides hair replacements for children who have medically- related hair loss.  The organization strives on donating hair replacements to children who are affected with absolutely no cost.  In 2016 alone Children with Hair Loss was able to help around 500 children.

Throughout the process of growing their hair some of the boys were said to be having a hard time at school.  They were faced with a few bullies that did not agree with their long hair.  Some had harder times than others.  Kannisto claimed that there were some hard nights that included a few tears because even after explaining the purpose of the long hair to the bullies, they remained to push limits. The boys, despite the bullies and their comments, completed their goal. Her sons prevailed, coming out of the process with “thicker skin” and good hearts.

In attendance to the hair cutting was Marah Taylor, the youngest daughter of the Kannisto family, who is only two-years-old. “She watched in awe, her brothers are great role models,” said Phoebe Kannisto in an interview with HuffPost.  The Kannisto family is already planning on donating again so that Marah Taylor can participate.  The brothers promised their sister that they would do it again just for her. The brothers are already getting excited about the next time they can donate.  They are throwing around bets and estimating how long they think it will take until their hair is at the right length to get cut.

The efforts of the Kannisto family are nothing short of admiring.  Phoebe, her sons and Marah Taylor, show a level of commitment and kindness that others strive for. Cancer is a hard pill to swallow and effects so many. “Cancer hits close to home for everybody, everybody knows someone who’s affected by cancer,” said Kannisto in an interview with ABC News. Something that is so looked over, such as hair, could mean so much in the eyes of someone else.  It’s reassuring that children who have not even reached their teen years yet have such an ability to care for others without expecting anything in return.  They just want to give.

 

You can donate or research more on Children with Hair Loss at: https://www.childrenwithhairloss.us/

Graduation season is in full swing.  High school students are preparing for college and college students are preparing for adulthood. Nonetheless, the graduation ceremony is something that any student views as a long time coming.  It is the last step of officially getting you over the finish line after the long haul of a race with homework, tests, and what seems like endless studying.  For college student, Jerich Alcantara, he was more than ready for his ceremony. His family and friends were all invited and it was a moment that he was glad he would be able to share with them.

Jerich Alcantara was graduating from Hunters College in New York. He had spent long hours completing his degree in the Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing. He told Select All, that he had opted out of the main graduation ceremony that was being held at Radio City Music Hall due to the fact that they were only allowing each student a total of two guests to attend. Alcantara had made it his plan to invite all of the family and friends that he felt should be present and just attend the smaller commencement ceremony.   The day of his ceremony he and a few of his friends decided to take the subway E-Train from Queens to Manhattan.

Being that the subway transports over some 4 million people a day they thought that there would be no problem. Everything was smooth sailing until the trains emergency brakes went off for no reason.  The engineers were unable to fix them for over an hour and a half.  They had sent out for rescue trains but the wait time for their arrival was estimated to be over 20 to 30 more minutes.  All in all the passengers were on the train for a total of three hours.

During the wait for the rescue trains to arrive, Jerich Alcantara in full regalia decided to make a joke to lighten up the moody and irritated passengers.  He decided to thank everyone for attending his graduation. “I announced to the whole train ‘Hey guys thanks for coming out today to see me walk and graduate,” he told Fox News. It was the right thing to say because people began to applaud and cheer for Alcantara.  He told Select All in an interview,” Everyone was getting antsy and impatient, so I figured I’d lighten the mood by thanking everyone for coming out. That led to applause, and the rest just followed.”  After the passengers applauded him the impromptu ceremony commenced.

The ceremony began with exemplary graduation music even including the song “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” by the band Green Day. One of his friends made a diploma on his phone and decided to play the role of dean.  He spoke a few words about Alcantara, congratulated him, shook his hand, and handed over the phone that was playing the role of the diploma.

After being stuck for more than three hours, Alcantara was able to make his way to the ceremony. He knew he had missed the entire ceremony but his family and friends still felt it was fit to go. When he got above ground he noticed that there were other individuals who were dressed in their purple gowns and cap that had also missed the event.

Upon arriving to the facility Alcantara saw some fellow nursing students.  They told him to go to the auditorium anyways. The auditorium was cleared out except for his family and friends.  The family and friends got into their seats and his family and friends made Alcantara walk down the center aisle and across the stage.  They held another makeshift graduation playing music while he made his march. Receiving the phone-diploma once more it was a little bit closer to the ceremony that Alcantara, family, and friends had anticipated on seeing.

The schools reaction to the impromptu graduation ceremony made the experience come around full circle.  The school tweeted recognizing all of the graduates and congratulating them as well as giving a direct shout out to Jerich Alcantara congratulating him on his graduation along with sharing a video that a passenger that was in attendance to the subway graduation had taken. Also, in an interview with Fox News, the president of Hunter College said that she was personally going to hand Jerich Alcantara his diploma and she looks forward to it.

All in all, Alcantara had a great outlook on the events.  He told Select All, “It was a great time.”  The situation was obviously not ideal but because of good people making a not so great situation worthwhile and maintaining a positive outlook at the circumstances that were at hand. He was able to receive two special graduations when only expecting one. Not to mention, that Jerich Alcantara and all of those subway passengers in attendance saw a graduation ceremony that they will never forget.

Shaurn-Thomas-WPVIAfter 24 years, Shaurn Thomas is finally free.

Thomas claimed for over 16 years that he did not kill a popular Philadelphia businessman in a street robbery. He was 16 then, and said he had been at a juvenile court proceeding for trying to steal a motorcycle when the daylight murder occurred. But the courts weren’t buying it, and Thomas lost appeal after appeal. Convicted almost completely on the testimony of a co-defendant, he was sentenced to life without parole.

In 2009, Thomas sent a letter to the newly formed Pennsylvania Innocence Project. A lawyer named James Figorski, who had spent 25 years as a Philadelphia police officer, happened to be the one who opened it. He knew how the city’s juvenile system worked, and he sensed something wasn’t right.

For the next eight years, Figorski volunteered countless hours investigating Thomas’s case, along with Innocence Project legal director Marissa Bluestine
Last year the two began meeting with the Philadelphia district attorney’s Conviction Review Unit. The prosecutors began to agree; Thomas was almost certainly innocent.

Last month, prosecutors moved to vacate Thomas’s murder conviction, and he was released from prison after nearly 24 years behind bars. That night, Thomas had his first meal outside of prison with family and his fiancée. He chose the seafood combination at Red Lobster, his lawyers said. He also tried using a cell phone for the first time.

“I feel wonderful, a free man. I can’t feel no better. Hey man, just got to believe in God, and have the right legal team, and keep fighting,” Shaurn told WBTV in the video below. “I don’t got no animosity towards nobody. What for? Life’s too short for that. You can’t get it back. I just move on forward. It’s a tragedy that happened to me, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.”

Now 43, Thomas was not in Philadelphia County court to hear the news. He remained in a state prison in Frackville, Pa., until the order from Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi was entered. Figorski drove up to Frackville that day to retrieve Thomas.

“At every level, Shaurn was failed,” Bluestine said. “By his lawyers, by the prosecutors, by the courts. Ironically, it took a former police officer to dig in and prove he’s an innocent man.”
Thomas was the fourth person convicted in the November 1990 slaying of Domingo Martinez, who owned three North Philadelphia travel agencies and was active with civic groups in the Latino community for decades. Martinez, 78, had gone to a Mellon Bank branch in Center City about 9 a.m. and withdrawn $25,000 in cash. After he drove away from the bank, his car was struck by another car, and someone in the other car got out, fatally shot Martinez and took the money.

The case was cold for two years, even though there were a number of witnesses, pedestrians and other motorists, who saw the collision and shooting. Then in 1992, a man named John Stallworth confessed to his involvement and named his brother and Thomas as participants. Stallworth’s confession was shown to be false because one of the other participants he named was in prison at the time of the slaying, but Stallworth still was held. In 1993, facing the death penalty, Stallworth changed his story and eliminated the man who was in prison. Thomas was arrested, charged with murder and jailed in July 1993.

Stallworth and his brother William cut plea deals in exchange for their testimony against Thomas and his older brother, Mustafa Thomas. Shaurn Thomas’s lawyer tried to present evidence of his alibi, his arrest and processing at the juvenile center, but “it wasn’t presented with the strength and detail that we have now,” Martin said.

Figorski and Bluestine began meeting with a prosecutor from the district attorney’s Conviction Review Unit in November 2016. Members of the unit reviewed the case and interviewed William Stallworth, who again recanted his trial testimony that Thomas had been involved in the homicide.

The prosecutors also found 36 pages of witness statements that had not been turned over to the defense during Shaurn Thomas’s trial, some with information implicating other suspects.
Figorski and Bluestine began meeting “pretty regularly” with the Conviction Review Unit beginning last year, Bluestine said, “to push them hard to look at this. We’ve never been afraid for them to look at the evidence because we knew he was innocent.”

“It happened because he had no money or power,” Figorski said. “They had a cold case they wanted to solve. And they had somebody willing to say [Shaurn] did it.”

Now, though, Shaurn is holding no malice or anger about the incident. While it took up a large part of his life, he is now happy to be out of the jail cell. He said that he “never lost faith” he would be freed.

“From the time I got locked up to the time I got released, I wrote letters,” Mr. Thomas said in a telephone interview on Thursday as he shopped for clothes in Philadelphia. “I wrote letters to people I didn’t even know. I just knew that one day — I didn’t know when — that I would be a free person.”

“Everyone is happy, very, very happy,” Stephonia Long, Thomas’ fiancée, told CBS Philly. “The whole time he has been very positive because he believed in his innocence.”

And free he now is.