The physical condition of 9-year-old South Brunswick child Brandon Dominguez has deteriorated due the devastating affects of brain cancer, but members of the community are doing everything in their power to help him stay strong.
In September of 2010, Brandon suffered a seizure and a tumor was soon discovered, which required Brandon to have brain surgery. A few months later Brandon was diagnosed with brain cancer.
Friends of the Dominguez family are hoping to raise money for Brandon's medical treatment by selling t-shirts carrying the message "Stay Strong Brandon," after being touched by his strength and courage.
"I've been friends with his older brother (David) since the seventh grade and we were both on the wrestling team, so I'm really close with the family," said South Brunswick resident Jarrid Harpster, a sophomore at Rutgers University. "When we found out that Brandon had cancer, it hit us all really hard. Seeing him get progressively worse, he's almost like my little brother. It just really hurts you inside."
Brandon began chemotherapy treatments at the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, five times a week for five months. Even with health insurance, the cost of transporting Brandon to New York five days a week was overwhelming, running between $400 to $500 in travel expenses each week.
"I just cried and cried for a very long time," Brandon's mother Sharol said in an . "We don't get cancer in my family. I don't understand how he got it. It just doesn't happen. We hardly ever got sick."
After months of chemotherapy, Brandon's original brain tumor shrunk by 92 percent of its original size. But in November last year, Brandon suffered a setback when a new tumor was discovered on the stem of his brain. The tumor has since confined him to a wheelchair.
"It's really difficult being so close to him because I've seen him get progressively worse," Harpster said. "Before our first semester of college, during the summer Brandon was able to swim with us and walk up and down stairs decently well. But when I came back for winter break there was a drastic change. Brandon used to be this skinny little guy, but he blew up from the steroids and other medications. He was in a wheelchair and couldn't walk. One of his eyes was completely shut and the other one was starting to close. He couldn't move his arms well and was sleeping a lot."
While watching a movie with Brandon at the Dominguez residence, Harpster said the reality of the situation began to set in.
"Me, his mom and him were watching a movie and she looked at me and shook her head to say this isn't looking good," Harpster said. "His tumor is growing and radiation isn't working. She said to him 'but we're still staying strong right Brandon?'
"He said yes we are. I'm not really his brother, but this has affected all of us the same way. We all stick together."
Harpster and his friends got to work doing whatever they could to raise money for Brandon's fight. Harpster's dorm at Rutgers held a fundraiser called "A Night for Brandon," where students each made get well cards for him. Harpster said in one hour they took in almost $500.
The friends also started a web site, Stay Strong Brandon.org, which sells t-shirts for $15 with all of the proceeds going to the Dominguez family. The shirts display the message "Stay Strong Brandon" on the front and say "Conquer Cancer" on the back. Donations can also be made to the Dominguez family on the web site.
"We're just trying to get the word out so people can help spread awareness," Harpster said. "Cancer just takes over the lives of kids and their families as well, it's horrible."
The outpouring of support from South Brunswick has been almost non-stop since word got out about Brandon's illness.
Brandon's classmates and the staff at Greenbrook Elementary School began raising funds through a program called . Students, parents and staff purchased small paper bears for $1, which were then decorated and taped to the walls of the school. Soon the other schools in South Brunswick joined in the fundraising efforts to help the Dominguez family, as thousands of dollars were raised.
When Sharol's old car could no longer make the trip to New York, the KPS/Princeton Garage fixed it. Following that, gave the family a van that now carries them back and forth for treatments.
, Buffalo Wild Wings, Tastee Subs and Innophos of Cranbury all held fundraisers for Brandon. in addition to the Hugs for Brady Foundation, and last year’s annual .
The South Brunswick High School wrestling team also showed their support for Brandon's older brother David, who wrestled at 135 lbs. for SBHS last year. David was buoyed by the actions of his teammates, who showed their solidarity with the Dominguez family by . Brandon was also made an honorary captain of the squad.
"I was honestly speechless by it, I never expected that everyone would do it," David said last year. "At the end of the day, it really just shows who's there for you."
Harpster and his friends at Rutgers also tried to get the message of support out by spreading the word via Twitter, with #staystrongbrandon being re-tweeted by inspirational former Rutgers star Eric LeGrand, and several NFL players in attempt to get the term trending on Twitter.
Harpster and his friends also turned to music to try and put a smile on Brandon's face.
"Me and my friends had an idea to create a rap for Brandon, and one of my friends is a rapper, so he's good at putting lyrics together," Harpster said. "So I just put a list together of everything I know about Brandon and we stayed up one night until 3 a.m. coming up with the lyrics."
Harpster's friend Matt Sawaged (aka Astralogy), recorded a song to the beat of "Don’t Worry Be Happy" by Bobby McFerrin (click on video) about Brandon.
After putting the song on a CD for him, they performed the song for Brandon during a visit to Harpster's dorm at the “Night for Brandon” fundraiser.
"We all circled around Brandon and my friend Matt got in the middle and performed the rap for him," Harpster said. "It just made Brandon really happy. To see the support from everyone in the dorm, we were all just really touched by it."
The combined efforts of so many people in and around South Brunswick to support Brandon left a lasting impact on the Dominguez family.
"It's amazing what the South Brunswick community has done for us to not have to worry about the little things," Sharol said last year. "Friends have become like family and I feel like we're all in this together because everybody is with us. Without their support, I don't know what we would've done."
For Harpster and the rest of Brandon's supporters, everything they do is to support a brave and special child as he fights for his life.
"It's just really difficult to see him go through this knowing he's such a positive kid and always has a smile on his face," Harpster said. "We just want to help a great kid."
Shirts (see photo) are also available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
For those on Twitter, please send out a tweet containing the line #staystrongbrandon to help get message trending on Twitter.