Joey Doolittle used his brief time on this earth living with courage, kindness and in service to others. Joey died at the age of nine years old from cancer, but not before creating his legacy ― Joey’s Toy Box (JTB).
Joey’s intention was to bring as much comfort and happiness as he could to children who were suffering, as he was, from serious illness. Joey fulfilled that goal. Joey’s parents, Thomas Doolittle, senior special agent of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE’s) Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) assigned to the Resident Agent in Charge (RAC) office in Tampa, Florida, and his wife, Kim, are at the helm of the now 501c3 charitable organization, which was borne from their son’s generosity of spirit.
Joey knew from his own experience that at the end of a grueling chemotherapy treatment or other unwelcome medical procedure, that a reward awaited him ― a toy that he picked out from the hospital’s toy closet. But one day, when the supply of toys was running low, Joey told his mother that he was concerned that there might not be enough toys for other “kids like me.” Joey was so concerned, in fact, that he asked his mother if he could ask others to give money to help fill the toy closet. And that was the beginning of Joey’s Toy Box.
During the near decade of Joey’s illness, Doolittle was engaged in the good fight on two fronts. As a federal law enforcement agent, he was combating crime. As a father, he was fighting for his son’s survival.
“From a father’s standpoint, you go through a wide range of emotions,” said Doolittle. “I remember feeling for the first time what it was like to not be in total control of my child’s well-being. All of the normal aspects of providing fatherly protection for your child go out the window, and you find yourself at the mercy of doctors you just met, hospitals you’ve never heard of, drugs that are so potent that they’re dangerous and medical procedures that are downright frightening. All of this hits you like a sledge hammer. You often feel as if you’re all alone battling a giant who’s trying to take your child. It can be a helpless feeling.”
Doolittle continued, “But as a parent or sibling of a sick child, you must get past that initial shock, put on your ‘Fight Face’ and go to battle. After all, it’s the child who’s laying there in the hospital bed with 15 different tubes and wires sticking out of him. They are the ones who are truly enduring the painful treatments, and they are the ones who are truly fighting for their lives. As best we can, we have to keep our emotions in check and provide our sick child with stability and parental confidence. Even when we feel like the giant is winning, we can never display that weakness to our child. Hard to do? Of course.”
During this time, Doolittle, who had served with the U.S. Border Patrol and U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) before serving at ICE, also engaged in battles on the work front. With the Border Patrol, he had been a Special Response Team member, tactical boat captain and a chemical munitions and mobile field force instructor. At ICE, he targeted individuals who broke worksite laws and criminals who engaged in document fraud and gang and narcotics smuggling activity.
“Special Agent Doolittle’s ability to balance his unyielding love between his son and the job was unparalleled,” said Gregory Thompson, who was the supervisor of the busy ICE narcotics investigations office in Atlanta, where Doolittle was assigned. Thompson, who now serves as resident agent in charge for OPR in Tampa, Florida, said that “Special Agent Doolittle’s devotion was typical of all the agents. But what separated him from us was his devotion to the mission in spite of having an ailing son who eventually succumbed to cancer. His work ethic was impeccable, and his commitment to the mission never wavered.”
Doolittle is open and direct about his family’s experience and the charity that continues in honor of Joey. In his own words, Doolittle chronicles some of the events during this time period.
“Joey battled childhood cancer his entire life. In 1999, at three months old, Joey was diagnosed with a form of cancer, called Rhabdomyosarcoma. At that time, I was a border patrol agent assigned to McAllen, Texas. My family and I spent the next couple of years traveling between Corpus Christi and Houston for Joey’s many chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Joey underwent several surgeries and other procedures.
In 2001, I became a special agent with INS, and we moved to Atlanta. Joey continued his treatments, which included experimental drugs, as well as two more six-week radiation programs.
Joey’s longest chemo-free ‘remission’ was for about three years. I’d like to say that during that time, we had our son back. But realistically, we always had Joey even during all of the painful treatments and “sick” times, because that’s all he ever really knew.
In 2008, Joey came up with the idea to start fundraising in order to buy toys for the other kids at the cancer centers. He held the first JTB fundraiser on June 7, 2008, and raised about $1,800. He immediately spent the entire amount on toys for the kids. On June 13, 2008, Joey made his one and only toy delivery to the AFLAC Children’s Cancer Center at Scottish Rite Children’s Hospital in Atlanta. Joey passed away a couple weeks later on July 4, 2008 at age nine.”
Doolittle and his family have continued Joey’s goal of providing comfort and support to children and their families who are continuing to battle cancer and other serious diseases.
JTB has no paid employees and only receives volunteer support from family, friends and the local community. JTB has two primary fundraisers each year: a Spring Brunch and a Fall Motorcycle Ride. In addition, the charity receives funding from CFC participants, local businesses and individual private donations. With extremely low operational costs, nearly 99 percent of direct donations are used where they should be ― to the kids and families who need them.
“Carrying on Joey’s dream has become a purposeful mission that we owe to those brave kids and families who continue to do battle,” said Doolittle. “Our nine-year journey with Joey made us ‘experts’ in a field that no one wants to be in, and we know exactly what each and every family is going through. We think about our charity more as, ‘How can we not do it?’”
Doolittle expresses a sense of strength, faith and wisdom that can only emanate from a place of the most profound of losses. He says, “The loss of a child is a parent’s worst nightmare. Childhood cancer is life-altering for everyone involved. Its reach and power can bring down the strongest of people, the most confident and the biggest of egos. It can test your faith. It can begin your faith. And sometimes, with small victories throughout the journey, it can restore your faith. Childhood cancer also produces heroes; some who walk among us, and others who hover above us.”