Stephen Placencia loved soccer. He loved hat tricks and headers, shooting on goal and finishing.
When the 17-year-old forward lost his battle against a rare form of liver cancer in 2008, his family and friends decided to take to the soccer field.
In his honor, they started the Kick Cancer for Stephen Foundation, a nonprofit with a threefold mission: to support research in an effort to find a cure for childhood cancers; to provide age-appropriate activities for teenage patients in local hospitals; and to support families who have a child diagnosed with cancer.
“He ate, drank and slept soccer, and it was just a joy to watch him play. … His last coach (Cienega High School’s Dean Norris) always said, ‘Stephen’s spirit embodies everything about soccer and teamwork and dedication.’ He was all about giving 100 percent all of the time. That was just who he was,” said Francie Placencia, Stephen’s mother and president of the foundation.
The foundation has continued that legacy since its inception six years ago, donating more than $80,000 in Wii systems, Xboxes, PlayStations, televisions and other electronic equipment to the University of Arizona Medical Center-Diamond Children’s and Tucson Medical Center.
It has provided nearly 100 gaming systems and multiple controllers for patient rooms at Diamond Children’s and completely outfitted the UAMC Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Clinic as well; the Tucson Medical Center Pediatric ward received gaming systems and electronics such as iPads for 36 rooms and the Pediatric Emergency Department.
The foundation has also provided games, movies and gift cards to local restaurants and retailers for a “Treasure Chest,” as well as snacks and drinks in five rooms at the UAMC Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Clinic, where children receive bloodwork and outpatient treatments.
Placencia said Stephen recognized the need for more activities for teens when he was hospitalized shortly after his diagnosis and initial surgery in 2005. Over the next several years while living with cancer he spent hours playing board games and cards with his family, but fought boredom due to the forced inactivity.
At that time there was one video-game system shared by all UMC pediatric patients; if patients were sleeping or undergoing a procedure during their reserved time, they missed the opportunity to play.
“There was a children’s room with a pool table and air hockey, but children with an IV or receiving chemo were limited to watching movies or playing games. So the gaming systems were Stephen’s idea,” Placencia said.
“We made a commitment to fulfill his desire that any child, regardless of age, would have something to do while they were in the hospital to pass the time and maybe to take away some of the pain, even for a short while.”
Diamond Children’s Child Life Manager Lori Mitts said the donations from the foundation help patients and families alike, offering countless hours of entertainment during times of extreme stress.
“Electronic games can provide a distraction during a difficult procedure, and when someone is really feeling badly, the electronics can help them focus elsewhere. There is no doubt that is a good thing,” said Sherryanne Paul-John, a registered nurse who treated Stephen when he was hospitalized at Diamond Children’s and has seen the benefits the electronics have for patients.
Paul-John credits the entire Placencia family — Francie and father Steve, along with his sisters, Megan, Gabby and Ally — for their dedication.
“They have given so much back to the community. They are very generous, and it is ongoing. Their son passed a few years ago and they have never stopped thinking about the other children going through this,” she said.
The Placencia siblings help with the annual soccer tournament fundraiser and assist with hospital donation deliveries.
“They did so much for us and for Stephen, and it is good if we can help them and try to give something back,” said Ally, 13, who will start eighth grade at Desert Sky Middle School in July.
Gabby, 15, who begins her sophomore year at Cienega High School this summer, said working with the foundation is heartwarming.
“No one likes to be in the hospital, especially when they are bored and have nothing to do. I think we help make patients feel better, and it is a good way to remember Stephen’s spirit and his humor,” she said.
Gabby remembers Stephen’s efforts on the field as well.
“I play forward, just like him. I know I have to put my everything into it, just as he did, and make him as proud as I can,” she said.
The Placencias are certain that Stephen would appreciate the 3 V 3 soccer tournament, which has grown to more than 30 teams with members ranging in age from 8 years to over 40 and includes coed players.
They view it as a joyful testament to a boy who played at every opportunity throughout his illness and never gave up hope.
“Stephen’s spirit to do what he wanted to do overrode his illness. The tournament would have been something he would have loved to play in with his friends,” Francie said.
“He was on the shy side, but knowing that people come out to play soccer and honor his spirit and that he was helping so many others would make him happy.”