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Mitch Stone made it his mission in life to send kids with cancer, blood diseases and immune disorders to the supportive summer camp in Ohio that brought him comfort when he was diagnosed with a deadly brain tumor at the age of 11. And he’s doing it with a little help from his favorite football team, the University of Cincinnati Bearcats.
Stone, a 19-year-old diehard Cincinnati fan whose parents attended the school, was “adopted” by the football team when he was diagnosed with PNET (Primitive neuroectodermal tumor) at the age of 11. The players and coaches formed an “instant bond” with the personable and upbeat Stone — and their support helped him stay positive when doctors told him his malignant tumor had only a 50 percent survival rate.
The teen was declared cancer free in late 2009 and the first thing he decided to do was help other kids who were suffering from cancer. Stone founded the non-profit organization Mitch’s Mission in 2010 to help send young patients to Camp NjoyItAll in Clarksville, Ohio. With fundraising help from Bearcats football players, he’s raised over $75,000 to send 140 children to the camp, which focuses on disease education. And, a camp favorite, Stone brings in pals from the team to play catch with patients during NjoyItAll’s weeklong session.
“Two things saved me when I was sick: camp where I could talk with people who knew what I was going through and the UC football players, who became my family,” Stone tells PEOPLE. “So I wanted to merge them together. I just felt like I survived this brain tumor for a reason and that is to live life and give back.”
In February of 2009, Stone began complaining of severe headaches to his mother, Dee Stone. But the family figured he was just having migraine symptoms.
“But one day my left eye was rolling to the center of my face and my mom freaked out because I couldn’t control it,” he recalls. “We got scans and that’s when they found my brain tumor, I was 11 and I had no idea if I was going to survive.
“To a kid that age, cancer sounds really scary.”
Stone had brain surgery soon after his diagnosis and immediately started chemo and radiation treatments. His radiologist mentioned a program that matched cancer patients with sports teams as a comfort system – and that the University of Cincinnati football squad was looking for a family to support.
“My parents both attended UC so it was like the perfect fit,” says Stone, now a freshman at University of Cincinnati himself. “I was this little frail sick kid, but these gigantic football players showed so much love to me and gave me so much support.”
Stone became close with the players, who invited him to all of their practices and texted him score updates if he was too sick to attend games.
“They became my family,” he says. “They really got me through my treatments. In football they talk about camaraderie and brotherhood and that’s exactly what those guys did, they lifted my spirits!”
After successful brain surgery a few months after his diagnosis, Stone decided to spread that love and support the University of Cincinnati football team gave to him.
“I started Mitch’s Mission, which has now been around for about six years and our goal is to send as many kids as we can, for free, to the same summer camp I went to growing up,” says Stone of NjoyItAll. “I was a camper there for five years and it was always the highlight of my summer because I could talk to other kids who really understood what I was going through.”
Affiliated with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, the camp holds sessions focused on disease-education, self-esteem activities and bonding through diagnoses.
“It’s an opportunity for kids usually stuck in the hospital to socialize and have independence, we see some really strong friendships and bonds form,” NjoyItAll director Karen Martin tells PEOPLE. “It’s such a special place with a lot of community building and camp means the world to these kids. And when the Cincinnati football players come in, it’s a highlight, because they play with the kids!
“We are extremely grateful to Mitch, we wouldn’t be able to have as many children getting the camp experience and making friends without Mitch’s Mission.”
Lucy Yungblut, 13, a leukemia patient, was able to attend camp with donations from Mitch’s Mission and she says she met “so many” new friends when she was there.
“It made me feel like I belonged,” Lucy tells PEOPLE. “I got to know other people who went through the same thing that I did.”
Stone raises money to send kids like Lucy to Camp NjoyItAll through an annual fundraiser put on by the University of Cincinnati in February called “Playdate with the Bearcats.”
“We invite families that live nearby to come participate,” says Stone. “It’s like a big carnival in the rec center, where kids can come interact with football players and other UC athletes, we charge an entry fee to get money.”
In preparation for this year’s Playdate, Stone will meet with student council representatives and the university athletic department to talk about getting students more involved in the event. His goal is to get as many Cincinnati pediatric patients to camp as possible this year.
“And I know we can do it!” he says.
Stone, now a college freshman at University of Cincinnati, attends every football game and leads chants to cheer on his beloved football team. He says he feels at home, like things have come “full circle.
“I wasn’t sure I was going to live, let alone attend college,” he says. “The Bearcats gave so much to me and my mission, it’s small, but now it’s finally my turn to support them by cheering them on in the stands!”