Somewhere in Swaziland, a kid is going to school for the first time. She’s got a new backpack, filled with school supplies, a teacher excited to work with her, and a class full of peers ready to learn. She gets fed, challenged, and supported every day.
This happens, in part, because of my brother.
Somewhere in Pennsylvania, a family is battling a cancer diagnosis. They’ve been at the hospital all week, traveling back and forth. They are exhausted both mentally and physically. They haven’t had a moment to do the daily work of running a household or preparing for the next week of school and work. When they get home on Sunday night, the fridge is miraculously stocked. The pantries are full of food. There are gift cards on the counter and the entire house is cleaned top to bottom.
This happens, in some places, with help from my brother.
Somewhere in India a woman has been rescued and freed from a human trafficking ring. She is trying to put her life back and has to start somewhere. She’s given a job at a local cafe that provides not only work but also counseling and support services to rehabilitate the mind and body each day.
This work is supported by my brother.
Growing up, we didn’t think about many of these things. But, life has a way of changing your perspective, your goals, and what we care about.
My brother, Gabe, was born two years after me, which made us immediate growing up partners. We did most things together. Whether it was playing baseball in the backyard, riding bikes around the neighborhood, making Rocketeer backpacks after watching a movie, or just listening to music, we hung out every day as many brothers do growing up.
The first thing you need to know about my brother is that he would want you to believe he was like every other kid in our small hometown.
He participated in all kinds of school activities, although our favorite was Color Day, a field-day where every kid in the K-12 school competed against each other (we were REDS).
He played soccer, baseball, and basketball.
He was always a funny character in the school play (check out those suspenders!).
And, I say this with great certainty: He invented the selfie.
You may think Paris Hilton or someone else invented the selfie, but sure enough, I have photographic evidence of my brother taking selfies on the regular as a kid.
I could keep going, but I think you get the point. My brother loved turning those disposable cameras back on himself.
The second thing you need to know about my brother is that he was not like everyone else.
If you don’t know Gabe you may not realize that he has had to live his entire life with NF1. As a child, Gabe was diagnosed with Neurofibromatosis, where tumors were attached to his nerve endings on the inside and outside of his body. He grew up getting MRI’s, chemo, and surgeries on his eyes and his spine. He spent an entire year as an adolescent taking interferon treatments every day to slow the growth of these tumors.
I’ll never forget watching him take shot after shot each night, pointing to my parents where to put the needle because his legs were filled with bruises.
Gabe never defined himself by having NF. It was always present, and at times was impossible to forget, but he made it so there were hundreds of other reasons that could define who he was.
I’ve seen him make friends with almost everyone he has met. I’ve seen him destroy me in video games without a second look. I’ve seen him try out for a basketball team and deal with being cut by an awful coach, only to bounce back and take the positives. I’ve watched his intelligence shine through poker. I’ve seen my brother start his own business, pivot that business, and sell that business when the time was right.
But, that was never a given.
Along with NF, he had a learning disability growing up that made school challenging.
We would always joke that school was for hanging out with our friends, we just had to do that learning stuff in between recess.
As we got older I started to realize what a struggle it was for him. I’d finish my homework, ready to play, and he’d be working with my mom on problems for another hour.
I didn’t truly understand how hard that must have been until I became a teacher, and even more so when I became a Dad of my own kids that all learn differently.
Still, with the help of some amazing educators, Gabe continued to go through school, learning along the way.
One of the biggest hurdles to overcome at Jenkintown was the Graduation Project. There were rules from the state of what you could and could not do, and it was a mandatory requirement to graduate.
My brother wanted to do something different, he wanted (for one of the first times I could remember) to shine a light on his disease.
His graduation project idea was to start a fundraiser walk for NF.
The school could have said, “No, this doesn’t fit within the graduation project requirements.”
His advisor could have said, “Gabe, that is going to be a lot of work to pull off, are you sure you don’t want to try something a bit more doable.”
The principal supported the idea and helped make the connections with the township and police to shut down the streets.
His advisor, Mrs. Klemp, was the most supportive person ever. An educator who believed each child should pursue what they are interested in and passionate about while they are in school. She helped Gabe get the fundraiser over many hurdles and obstacles along the way.
The entire community came together to support this fundraiser walk-a-thon. But, more importantly to me and our family, they showed up to support Gabe.
For someone who had struggled with school, Gabe was going to raise money for NF, lead a huge fundraiser that he put together, and graduate headed to Shippensburg University.
I would ask him years later, “How did you pull that off, lol?!”
And he grinned and said, “It definitely wasn’t just me. Have you met Mrs. Klemp. She loved me!”
In some ways, that walk-a-thon showed my brother’s true colors. He always dreamed big, and always wanted to help people.
Despite growing up in hospitals, Gabe’s passion for life was always present with friends and family. He was the kid that could have done anything with his Make-A-Wish opportunity, and he decided to take his entire family on a vacation (it was awesome, btw!).
After a year at college, he left to start his own business with a few friends. In fact, almost everything Gabe did after that point was entrepreneurial and in service to others (as you can see from his LinkedIn profile below).
Flash forward 10 years later. Gabe had started a business, was working full-time and had met this amazing girl (more on that later!). No one expected his next big diagnosis to be cancer.
When Gabe was diagnosed, Kristen was his girlfriend and soon to be fiance. They quickly got married and began the journey of surgery and chemo against cancer together. Their love story is a unique one (but if you know either of them, it also fits perfectly!). Their paths crossed many many MANY times over their lifetime but it took a random message (Gabe has some game) on OKCupid to bring them together. Then, like an OKCupid commercial, the rest was history 🙂
They did everything together, including volunteering for organizations helping others in need.
As Kristen says: “Gabe’s unshakable positive attitude strengthened me, his parents and everyone he was connected to through this tough time. A warrior child turned amazing man.”
A year after this initial diagnosis of testicular cancer, Gabe and Kristen shared the great news with family and friends – the chemo had been successful. Gabe and Kristen were able to start working again and even take a long-overdue honeymoon as husband and wife.
After months of enjoying life together, working with the youth group, and beginning their life as a family—Gabe’s health started to deteriorate. His right leg became numb and then in April a shooting pain shot across it that was unbearable. We rushed him to the ER to get treated and find out what was happening.
After many tests, consults with teams of doctors, they explained that Gabe’s cancer was back, this time in many places.
The cancer took form in a nerve sheath on Gabe’s leg and spine. His L5, C3, and C4 were all impacted deeply by malignant tumors that took away movement and caused great pain. Additionally, the cancer was back in his liver and lungs.
The third thing you need to know about my brother is that he has always lived life like a chef.
My favorite writer in the world is Tim Urban. He explains the difference between a chef and a cook like this:
The words “cook” and “chef” seem kind of like synonyms. And in the real world, they’re often used interchangeably. But in this post, when I say chef, I don’t mean any ordinary chef. I mean the trailblazing chef—the kind of chef who invents recipes. And for our purposes, everyone else who enters a kitchen—all those who follow recipes—is a cook.
Everything you eat—every part of every cuisine we know so well—was at some point in the past created for the first time. Wheat, tomatoes, salt, and milk go back a long time, but at some point, someone said, “What if I take those ingredients and do this…and this…..and this……” and ended up with the world’s first pizza. That’s the work of a chef.
Since then, god knows how many people have made a pizza. That’s the work of a cook.
The chef reasons from first principles, and for the chef, the first principles are raw edible ingredients. Those are her puzzle pieces, her building blocks, and she works her way upwards from there, using her experience, her instincts, and her taste buds.
The cook works off of some version of what’s already out there—a recipe of some kind, a meal she tried and liked, a dish she watched someone else make.
Gabe is a chef, not a cook.
He has always taken what life has given him and created something unique. I’m constantly in awe of how he does it. In fact, it challenged me in many ways to make life great every single day regardless of the circumstances.
Here he was, with cancer, NF, shingles, and necrotizing fasciitis in the hospital. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, he was sending many of us an email titled, “A Letter From My Heart”.
That August, my brother passed away. He had just celebrated his 33rd birthday with family and friends.
To be honest, I’m still upset. I’m still angry. I still can’t believe my growing up partner, my brother, and my hero is not here with us anymore.
I hate seeing my parents struggle to deal with this loss. I can’t stand watching his wife, Kristen, carry the weight of losing a husband and best friend. And, I wish my own four kids had more time, memories, and experiences with him.
I wish I had more time.
I guess we all do when someone we love leaves us.
But, in true Gabe fashion, my brother has not let death define his legacy.
While in the hospital, he and his wife talked about what he wanted to do when he got better. He wanted to help people that are helping others…
Gabe had spent time in Swaziland, helping out kids and orphans that wanted to go to school.
The Breathing Room Foundation had provided so much support to him and Kristen during their battle with cancer, by giving them a stocked fridge, gift cards, and more while he was getting treatments.
And his cousin was helping victims of human trafficking by running a cafe that provided jobs and support for their recovery.
Each of these organizations meant something to Gabe, and he wanted to do everything in his power to help further their good work of serving people in need.
After his passing, Kristen officially started Gabriel’s Gladiators Foundation. The GG Foundation was started to honor those, like my brother, who fight bravely no matter what life brings and who live with courage and kindness in the middle of hard and difficult circumstances. In 2019, the GG Foundation raised over $22,000 for gladiators all over the world. Here are just a few of the gladiators the foundation helped support:
• One young man from Eswatini, Fanelo Zikhali, lost his hearing at the age of seven following a vicious blow to his head from a family member. He became completely deaf, but continued to attend school, sitting in the front row and learning to read lips. Today in a country that offers few services for people with disabilities, Fanelo not only survives, he thrives. As the owner of the Swazi Sign Language Training Center, he runs his own business, is an outspoken advocate for deaf rights, and has made his school a gathering spot and support for deaf Swazi people offering them hope that they too can thrive despite their challenges. GG Foundation donations are helping Fanelo continue to reach out to some of the neediest people in Eswatini.
• A young woman from a large city in South Asia, Ruma (not her real name) escaped from the human trafficking and found work last August at the café that we support. In the café she is offered safety, an opportunity to get an education, and a way to support herself and her family. If you met her would notice that she is often smiling as she serves coffee and food. She is small in stature, but big in her desire to grow, change, and seek a better life for herself and her family.
• A young man from the city of Philadelphia, Rashid, still attends school when possible despite the reoccurrence of his brain cancer. He and his large and loving family are refusing to be defined by the disease they are fighting and instead are working hard to support him and each other. Through the work of the Breathing Room Foundation, you contributed to helping Rashid and many brave children like him to continue to thrive despite a difficult diagnosis. School supplies, Thanksgiving feast, personalized holiday gifts and Spring/Easter baskets, dinners and snack bags were all supplied by Breathing Room volunteers to him and others who face cancer with courage and hope.
The fourth thing you need to know about my brother is that he is still my hero.
His legacy lives on in the Gabriel’s Gladiators Foundation, and it was helped built, in part, by the family, friends, and people in his life that supported, challenged, and guided his journey.
You never know if one small conversation or decision can impact a life. And we also don’t know how that ripple effect will impact the hundreds of others around that person. But, we do know that each of us has the opportunity every day to make a positive impact during the small moments that don’t get shared but always matter.