Ben Watson is like a lot of University of Central Florida students: He likes music, playing the guitar and camping with his friends, and he hasn’t quite figured out his major yet.
But few Knights can say they’ve had as great an impact on as many lives. Just 19 years old, Watson has already founded a cancer foundation that’s raised more than $250,000 and helped more than 200 families.
“I knew I wanted to do something to help,” Ben said. “I didn’t know what it would evolve into or what it would become.”
It started when he was 14. He’d been feeling fatigued, and grew winded easily. At marching band practice at Lake Highland Preparatory School, he’d frequently have to sit and rest.
A diagnosis finally came from Florida Hospital, but it was something no one wanted to hear: non-Hodgkin large B-cell lymphoma.
“I don’t think I really understood it at the time. It was a lot harder on my parents,” Ben said.
Ben’s father can attest to that.
“The doctor said there was a mass the size of a grapefruit in his chest,” Barry Watson said. “It’s like a bag of rocks hitting you in the face when somebody tells you that about your kid.”
During Ben’s hospital visits for chemotherapy and radiation treatments, he saw that many other children with cancer didn’t have family at their bedsides.
“Having constant support from my friends and family was something that really helped me get through this, but these kids weren’t able to have that support,” Ben said. “Parents go through their paid leave and then they have to choose between going back to work or staying with their kid. And if they don’t go back to work they’ll lose their insurance, and won’t be able to pay for food, utilities and other expenses.”
Ben and his family decided to hold a fund-raiser to help. They sold rubber bracelets at school and a few classmates planned to shave their heads in solidarity with Ben, who was then a high school freshman. In the end about 100 students shaved their heads as part of what grew into “Buzz for Ben.” They raised about $10,000.
Soon, The Benji Watson Cancer Foundation was formed. The charity focuses on families dealing with pediatric cancer, helping them with day-to-day expenses: groceries, gas, utilities, rent.
The nonprofit organization holds an annual fund-raising event that raises $20,000 to $40,000; this year it’s on Dec. 19 at The Abbey in downtown Orlando. The Foundation also receives funding raised by a larger pediatric cancer charity, Runway to Hope. The $250,000 collected by The Benji Watson Cancer Foundation since 2010 has been used to help more than 200 families at Florida Hospital and Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children.
The charity is a family affair, run together by Ben, his father, mother Becky and sister Hillary.
Ben, who begins his sophomore year with the fall semester, lives on the UCF campus in the Towers housing community.