In June of 2013, the family of 5-year-old Peyton Whittington held an informal carnival in their backyard. Two days later, Peyton died of a brain cancer, Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG). An inoperable, tentacle-like tumor had encased the boy’s brain stem.
A few months ago, a different carnival was held at CERAland Park, but one thing was the same: Peyton was at the heart of the event.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that a little backyard carnival would’ve grown into what it did,” said his mother, Lynn Whittington.
For the past eight years, Whittington has led the Peyton’s Angels Indiana Chapter of The Cure Starts Now, a grassroots organization dedicated to eliminating all forms of cancer.
According to the group’s Facebook page, the Peyton’s Angels chapter sought to raise awareness and funding for childhood brain cancer research in memory of Peyton. Nearly every year since 2014, the chapter has held a “Carnival for the Cure” in June to raise funds in the fight against cancer.
In May of 2021, Whittington announced that she had made the “difficult decision” to close the chapter. However, she added that she, her husband and many of their friends would still personally support The Cure Starts Now.
Peyton’s Angels raised more than $50,000 for childhood brain cancer research at the 2021 Carnival for the Cure, which was the group’s final event. Whittington said the amount “by far exceeded our expectations, considering we lost a year of fundraising.”
“We had to cancel the carnival for 2020,” she said. “However, we still brought in … about $20,000 in donations that we offered refunds to, but they did not want a refund, which was very gracious.”
The Peyton’s Angels chapter of The Cure Starts Now was founded in December of 2013. When Peyton was still alive, his family was looking for charities that supported research for DIPG, and Whittington had never heard of one.
“One day, we were at one of his visits at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, and we asked, ‘Is there anybody that does this? If not, we are going to start our own charity,’” she said. “And they pointed us in the direction of The Cure Starts Now.”
After attending a chapter meeting, they found that the organization was doing exactly what her family wanted to do.
Per The Cure Starts Now’s mission statement, the organization believes that “in order to truly cure cancer you have to focus on those cancers that are immune to treatment, those cancers that also affect children, and those cancers that are the biggest bullies with the highest death rate.”
Nearly all of its chapters are run by “cancer families in honor of their children.”
Whittington said that because they do it as volunteers, 100% of the funds they raise go to the nonprofit and are funneled through funds to different cancer research going on around the world.
“Losing our son lit a fire for us to really work hard,” she said.
After Peyton’s death, Whittington gave birth to two daughters. The balancing act of caring for young children and planning the carnival became more difficult as the event grew. The Whittingtons decided that it was important to focus on their family for the time being while still supporting the cause in other ways.
“It’s bittersweet,” Whittington said. “I’m extremely proud and extremely grateful to those who have helped us along the way. Friends and family and even strangers have really put in a lot of work, effort, time and money into our cause in honor of our son.”
She added that she looks forward to seeing what else will come the family’s way and that “another door” might open for a different family with the same passion.
While they’ve closed the local chapter, the Whittingtons still are supporting The Cure Starts Now and other efforts to fund cancer research. In September, they attended a charity motorcycle ride.
Whittington added that CERAland will continue the “Blast off for Peyton” fireworks show annually in his memory. In the past, this display was held at the end of the carnival.
“Locally, as far as events raising money for childhood brain cancer, there are many people that are excited and ready to take on those third-party events with us as a family,” she said. “Whether it be may be a future carnival or other events such as the motorcycle ride and fireworks.”
Peyton’s 13-year-old twin brother, Stillman, has expressed interest in taking over the carnival at some point. Whittington said that while it may be some time before he’s ready, the family will support him when he is.
In the nearly eight years since it was created, Peyton’s Angels raised over half-a-million dollars for cancer research. Whittington said she’s “incredibly proud and incredibly moved” by this fact.
Peyton would also be proud of his family’s work, she said.
“I know that what we did was never going to bring him back, but if it could help someone else’s family, then it’s worth all of that effort,” she said. “And I would do it over again in a heartbeat. … No parent should have to hold their child and watch them die.”