Heartbreaking story behind family of ex-Rangers and Everton man on Leeds United mission in Perth
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He and his family spent time chatting with Jesse Marsch, Liam Cooper and Adam Forshaw and had photos before Marsch involved their eldest son Josh in the training session. Pascal Struijk later engaged the youngster in a nutmeg battle. One of their number was missing however, and that was why linking up with the Whites’ squad formed an important part of their new mission in life.
In May 2020, Jack Stevens was diagnosed with a rare leukemia and, although he successfully underwent a stem cell transplant, a 2021 relapse led to his death at just four years old. The pain is still raw for Gary, his wife Louise and sons Josh and Oliver, but they made the decision to fight so that other families don't suffer quite as they did.
"In the wake of the grief and looking at the hole that he's left behind and the dark hole that we're in, we started to think about what we could do to bring some meaning to our lives and to honour little Jack," Louise told The YEP.
"He just loved helping people, he was a beautiful little soul, just so kind and, on the day he died, he was thinking of others. So we sat down and had a chat about what had been the hardest part of our journey, or what would have the most impact and we came up with two things. One - we found an enormous gap in care for bereaved families. There's quite a few charities out there helping you on the cancer journey but, once your child dies, you just fall off a precipice. There is very, very little support."
Tackling that issue is a long-term goal for the Stevens family, a 10-year project that could raise the kind of money needed to buy a property in which bereaved families can holiday. In the short term, their second goal will occupy much of the focus of their Forever Four - Jack Steven's Gift charity.
"About the end of last year, at Goodison, we had a drive that was supported by the DKMS, which is the English version of the stem cell registry, and we got 250 registered on the day," said Gary. "Because it's just a cheek swab [in England] it's easy to do and that was brilliant. It was with the backing of Everton. In Australia however the system is...""Diabolical," continued Louise.
"While we were in the process of doing little Jack's transplant, we started to realise that the transplant process in Australia is diabolical. It's the worst in the first world. And it was heartbreaking really, because we felt safe here, initially. We thought we're lucky to be where we are, the health care service is amazing. And then we realised that there was this massive problem with the process. And so we are trying to make some noise to get that process changed.
"It comes down to a decision that needs to be made by the government, just to go ahead with the programme that already exists. The funding is there, so no-one's asking for funding, it's just sitting in a bank account and they just haven't made a decision. Somebody just needs to give the nod.
"That's our passion to create some change, drive some change for the process. But, ultimately, the donor pool in Australia is way, way, below what it needs to be."
The Stevens' desire to interact with Premier League clubs like Leeds is driven by the knowledge that the donor pool is global, whether someone registers at Goodison Park in Liverpool or in Western Australia.
"Getting the story out there, if it motivates one person to go and register for the pool in England, it still counts," said Louise.
"And the pool needs updating every year because, ideally, you only use people who are under 35. Those donor pools need to refresh every year, all the time, there's people dropping off, we need some numbers to come on board. So being here with Leeds, the guys wearing our t-shirts, it's hopefully going to generate questions about what's happening."
The England rugby team welcomed the Stevens family to Optus Stadium and the presence of four Premier League teams in Perth provided another ideal opportunity to raise awareness.
Cooper pulling on a t-shirt was, in itself, a big help and the family's hope is that Leeds and their top-flight counterparts can play an even greater role in future.
"It's been quite a hectic few weeks for us to try and put together something that we feel will get optimum exposure," said Gary. "We've also been chatting to Jeff Thomas who played for Palace and England. He's in remission at the moment from chronic myeloid leukaemia and he started a charity himself.
"There's the phrase ‘football against cancer’; there's a little movement within football at the moment.
"In England, if we can do something similar to what we did at Goodison regularly, getting other teams involved, getting 300, 400, 500 people registered, with the number of teams in the Premier League and EFL, it becomes massive."