On Aug. 31, 2020, doctors diagnosed Kellan Ford, age four, with Medulloblastoma — a brain tumor that begins in the cerebellum and often spreads to other parts of your brain and spinal cord. Ford had been throwing up in the morning and feeling sick at night that week, but he’d begin to feel better and return to doing the things that a four-year-old boy does with the joy and energy that a four-year-old boy has. For Kellan, a young Philadelphia Union fan, that included going with his dad, a high-school teacher and soccer coach, to kick a ball around the field.
A couple of days later, Kellan had been taken to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and told about the tumor, then a day later told he had cancer, and then hours later told he’d need brain surgery before he began 30 rounds of brain and spine proton radiation.
He spent 10 days in CHOP before heading home. Three weeks later, in true Kellan fashion, he seemed in a better mood than everyone else. He even had enough energy to run around the track at his dad’s school a few times. Just because it seemed like fun. He bounced back from a diagnosis and surgery and extended hospital stay with spirit. Spirit and resolve that eventually gave way to a slogan: “Kellan Strong.”
If everyone else could be as strong as Kellan, they’d make it through. Together.
Kellan made it through his treatment. All 30 rounds. But in December he began to experience pain in his legs and in the next few days, doctors would discover that Kellan’s cancer had spread to his bone marrow. Two days later, he began chemotherapy.
In February, the effects of cancer and radiation and chemo began to take their toll. Kellan, a month shy of his fifth birthday, was suffering so much pain that Kristin and Mike couldn’t touch their son without causing discomfort. And in that moment, they understood that Kellan was dying.
Kellan rebounded from the moments of pain though. As much as you can when you’re five and going through cancer. Because that’s what you do when you’re Kellan Strong. A fact he was quick to remind his family of. He wasn’t alone though. He’d let them know they were Kellan Strong too.
The next month, Kellan went to the hospital for another scan. The scan revealed cancer in his bones, his jaw, his chest, his shoulders, his hips, his legs. Kellan was terminal.
That same day Kellan went to meet with a yoga instructor who’d been helping him relax. And to breathe. And to worry a little less.
In this session, Kellan learned about mantras. A definitive statement of who you are as a person that you can repeat to increase focus and redirect energy toward your goal. The instructor explained the idea behind choosing a mantra and laid out some cards in front of Kellan. Each contained a unique message. Kellan examined them for a moment before selecting a card with a choice that would be brave even when confronted with the struggles of a normal day.
“Today, I choose happiness.
Kellan did his best to choose happiness the rest of the way. And the community around him did their best to make that choice easier. People wore red shirts with a lightning bolt and the words “Kellan Strong” on the front.
They raised over $70,000 for his medical costs.. They sent pictures, food, texts, prayers, pictures and anything they could to make life and the choice to choose happiness a little simpler. A private donor, someone the family had never even met, provided a plane for Kellan and 21 family members to fly to Disney World.
His favorite soccer team, the Philadelphia Union, also got involved. The team sent Kellan a box of goodies including a Union blanket and teddy bear that would accompany Kellan everywhere from there on out. Manager Jim Curtin and Kellan’s favorite player, Alejandro Bedoya even sent along a video to let Kellan know they were thinking of him.
“Wow,” Kellan said. “They’re Kellan Strong too.”
The Union also invited Kellan and his family to meet the team and attend a game. He never got the chance.
“The day before he died we were with our family and I had asked him to look around the room and I said, ‘Kellan, are you still happy?’ I was nervous about the answer. Like, oh God, what if he tells me he wasn't,” Kristin Ford said.
“He looked around the room. Made eye contact with every single person. And looked back at me and said yes and gave me his little thumbs up. That was his little thing. And he was ready to die. I mean, how, how can you be five and ready to die? I don't know, but that was Kellen. That's Kellan up until his life ended.”
Kellan died on June 11, 2021. That’s when the butterflies started.
The morning after the rainy and miserable day Kellan died, the sun came out. And monarch butterflies filled the Fords’ backyard.
As Kellan’s family rode to his funeral shortly after, their driver that day found a piece of butterfly jewelry and asked if it belonged to Kristin. It didn’t, but he said he’d hold into it. During the Mass held at the funeral, people, of course, shared stories. One, about a butterfly, caught Kristin’s attention in particular. She returned to the driver and said, “I think that butterfly is meant for me.” It now sits on her desk next to a red pin reading “Kellan Strong.”
A while later, Kellan’s brother Parker returned to the soccer field. His first game since losing Kellan. His team was wearing red shirts that read “Kellan Strong” and “choose happiness” on the sleeve. And Kristin and Mike’s first time watching a game without Kellan.
As they sat down to watch Parker, something flew right in front of Kristin’s face. She brushed it away without thinking before it dawned on her. She turned to the couple sitting behind her.
“Was that a butterfly?”
They told her it was. A monarch. Kristin responded that she thought it was just her son saying hello. A comment that would usually take someone aback. And it might have for a moment. But shortly after, Kristin felt a tap on her shoulder from the same people behind her.
“Are you Kellan’s parents?”
“My name is Seth. I provided the plane to take to Disney World. I think your son just introduced us.”
Butterflies, the Ford’s and soccer didn’t stop intersecting there. Although Kellan never got to attend a Union game, the Union still brought the Fords to a training session to meet the team and to attend a game. In the first game the Ford’s attended after Kellan’s death, his favorite player, Alejandro Bedoya, wearing Kellan’s favorite number and a kit with lightning bolts on them, scored his first goal of the season.
On Sept. 19, the Ford’s were at Subaru Park again. This time for Kick Childhood Cancer night at Subaru Park. The team wore Kellan Strong pins walking into the stadium and Bedoya wore a special armband. Gold with two letters: KF.
Before the game, a monarch butterfly appeared. As Parker and the Fords were part of a presentation on the field, the butterfly flew over to Kellan’s grandmother and godfather in the stands. Then the Union’s season changed.
“Beforehand I see a butterfly flying around the field and I've never, ever, ever seen a butterfly before around Subaru Park,” Union VP of marketing and communications, Amanda Young Curtis said. “We were up 1-0 and then Orlando scores. The butterfly comes, flies down, lands on the 18-yard line. And it sat there for at least five minutes until Kacper scored on the other side.”
Butterflies have made regular appearances at Subaru Park since then. And the Union, struggling and falling down the standings before Sept. 19, rebounded to lose just once in their final 11 games on their way to claiming the second seed in the East and another chance to see a butterfly on the field as they host the Eastern Conference Final this Sunday against New York City FC (3 pm ET | ABC, ESPN Deportes).
The Fords have shown that too. Kristin and Mike have started The Kellan Ford Foundation in hopes of raising money for research grants to aid doctors in childhood cancer treatments along with proving “happiness boxes” that will provide toys and tools for kids like Kellan to practice mindfulness and explore other integrative therapies, and create kid-friendly rooms for children to make their transition as their time on Earth comes to a close.
Their goal is to raise $5 million in five years and to continue to spread Kellan’s mantra to anyone who needs to hear it. Today, I choose happiness.
“My philosophy has been instead of looking at life as what if, look at it as because of,” Kristin said. “It's because of Kellan, we're here. It's because of his bravery and his choice to choose happiness throughout the rest of his life that he had with us. His story got to so many people and it's because of him we started our foundation in his honor. It's kind of a different way to look at things, but you know, we're trying to be as positive and optimistic as we can. We sure do miss the crap out of him. But it's awesome to see such amazing support for our family.”
There’s an idea in the scientific understanding of nature and chaos that the smallest actions can have remarkable consequences. A small flap of a pair of wings can put events into motion that resonate on a grand scale. We know it popularly as “The Butterfly Effect.”
It’s unclear if a small flap of wings can change the world entirely or even change the outcome of a soccer game. But it is clear that Kellan Ford’s decision to choose happiness when no one expected it of him is a decision that will continue rippling outward. From person to person impacted by his story or the choices of others who heard it and decided it mattered.
And let’s just say, if somewhere in the midst of all that, the Union make it to MLS Cup. Would you really be surprised that a team like Philadelphia, a team that’s Kellan Strong, handled whatever came its way?
To learn more about the Kellan Ford Foundation and donate to carry on his legacy and help fund better outcomes for kids just like Kellan, visit here.