Gretchen Witt, 50, remembers the exact moment inspiration struck for Cookies for Kids’ Cancer. The New Jersey mom was sitting on the steps of her son Liam’s preschool. She’d just dropped him off and was enjoying the simplicity of life returning to normal. Liam was just 2-and-a-half years old when he was diagnosed with stage IV neuroblastoma, and after a year battling the disease, doctors had declared him cancer free. Life was good. But there were other families at the New York hospital where they’d spent the last 365 days that weren’t so fortunate — and she wanted to help.
“I was so grateful for his good health, he was going to live, he was in the clear, but I knew there were other kids and families still struggling…I could see their faces… and I knew pediatric cancer was underfunded,” Witt tells PEOPLE.
The movie Ghostbusters unexpectedly became the inspiration for what has since grown into a multi-million dollar non-profit.
“That part [in the movie] where they say don’t think anything bad, that’s what I was thinking about. Because nobody wants to talk about kids with cancer, but everybody likes good cookies — and we just needed to get them to listen.”
So in December 2007, Witt put the word out that she wanted to host a massive bake sale. She recruited 250 volunteers, including friends, family and even strangers, and borrowed a commercial kitchen where over two days they managed to bake 96,000 cookies.
They sold every one of them and raised $420,000 that first year.
“Sometimes people gave us money and said keep the cookies,” she says. “TheyI just want to get involved. During the craziness we realized we had hit a nerve with people, they just wanted a way to help that didn’t make them feel bad.”
A year later in September 2008, Cookies For Kids’ Cancer was officially born.
Sadly, Liam also relapsed for the first time that same year.
“My world came crashing down again,” Witt says. “We needed Cookies for Kids Cancer now more than ever.”
Liam fought cancer for four years, but died when he was just 6 years old in 2012.
There are now bake sales in his honor every year across the country and around the world – more than 8,000 events in 18 countries.
“It’s humbling because it was never about me or my son, it was about the cause and doing the right thing for kids. I just wanted to give people a way to get involved and feel like they were making a difference,” she says.
Amber van der Meer estimates she’s hosted more than 30 different events for the cause, helping raise close to $85,000. She met Gretchen when her own son Ber was diagnosed with the same kind of cancer as Liam. The two boys went through treatment together. Ber was actually given a vaccine to help treat his cancer that was funded in part by Cookies for Kids’ Cancer.
“To think that it all started with a bake sale just blows my mind and the fact that Liam isn’t here today and that Gretchen hasn’t given up on this, it’s so moving,” van der Meer tells PEOPLE. “They have just taken heartbreak and turned it into hope for everyone else.”
Ber was given the NED (No evidence of disease) declaration in 2012 and is now a healthy 14-year-old who loves the outdoors, is a Boy Scout and is a great big brother. He often helps his mom with the bake sales.
Now going into their tenth year, the non-profit has granted almost $15 million to seven of the nation’s top research hospitals. The money raised goes toward new therapies for children battling cancer.
To mark their 10-year anniversary, Witt plans to travel the country conducting “Cookies and Conversations.” She’ll meet with bake sale organizers who have helped the cause – many of whom she’s never met.
“To know there is something my husband and I put together that’s lasted and helped us feel like it’s made a difference is just amazing,” she says.