One of the many things that distinguish life in Kern County is the unbounded support we give one another and the causes we believe in. Perhaps no greater example of that is the Thumbs Up cancer awareness campaign that began five years ago with a single photograph.
KGET weatherman Kevin Charette could not have imagined then that when he posed for a picture with two friends who were battling the disease and began asking others to do the same and post them on social media as a show of support that it would spark a movement that caught on like wildfire.
One of the men in that picture, 60-year-old David Marcus, championed the drive of encouragement with every bone in his cancer-weary body until earlier this summer when the most ardent supporter of the nonprofit Thumbs Up Cancer Down lost his final battle with the disease. It was a tough blow to the organization’s founders and the thousands of people locally and around the country who had hopped onto the social media Thumbs Up photo bandwagon, sharing their own pictures of the hand gesture, and in doing so, offering virtual heartening to others like Marcus.
Within minutes of word of Marcus’ passing, local social media was flooded with condolences. “David was our greatest ambassador,” Charette said.
The two spoke mere hours before Marcus’ death in late June.
“David said, ‘I got my star,’” referring to the Fox Theater’s decision to place a star in his honor in front of the venue.
“A nonprofit can never be about one individual and David always said this is for everybody battling cancer,” Charette recalled. “And that was David, always thinking about everyone else.” Marcus, who was developmentally delayed, met Charette through their involvement with the local sports program for the disabled, League of Dreams. In the summer of 2014, Charette spotted a photograph on Facebook of Marcus offering thumbs-up in support of Naythan Bryant taken at Comprehensive Blood and Cancer Center. Charette had been Bryant’s Northwest Baseball coach just four years earlier.
On a visit to CBCC to see Bryant, Charette encountered Marcus who was also receiving treatment that day. The three posed for the impromptu photograph with broad smiles and what would become the signature hand gesture. Charette later showed the picture to his husband, Dignity Health Marketing Director Cody Brutlag, who saw an opportunity to boost the morale of other cancer patients through the simple act of sharing similar images of encouragement online.
The couple trademarked the Thumbs Up Cancer Down phrase, and in 2015, filed papers to become a nonprofit.
“Our mission is simple: to help those battling cancer. We (pose for pictures) put our thumbs up to knock cancer down,” Charette said.
Everyone from President Donald Trump, celebrities and professional athletes to local television personalities, politicians and everyday folk have been inspired by Marcus’ positive attitude and shared their own images.
“I know in David’s heart, this movement is what kept him alive,” Charette added. “I don’t know of anybody with such a positive outlook.”
In addition to the photo campaign, the organization also distributes Power Packs to patients. In June, the group delivered 500 bags filled with simple items of comfort like blankets, beanie caps, diaries and hand sanitizers to area treatment centers.
“This is a way to let people know they aren’t alone,” he said. “I have been blessed with good health. I get such satisfaction handing out the packs. If it puts a little hope in their lap, we’ve accomplished our mission.”
Next month, the group will host its fourth annual fundraiser that supports the bag distribution.
As for Bryant, today he is healthy and attending college at Cal Poly. Charette, who has been forecasting Bakersfield’s weather since he moved here in 2016, says he never dreamed he would create a nonprofit organization.
Like him and Brutlag, Marcus wasn’t born here, but considered it his true home and the citizens his extended family. Deeply religious, his final Facebook post read, “God is good all the time.” Even in the face of his own mortality, he remained upbeat and positive, boosting the spirits of others and teaching us all that ordinary people can do extraordinary things by simply lifting one another up. Three amazing men. What legacies of inspiration!
Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lisa Kimble.