By Joe Hadsall
Globe Features Editor
JOPLIN, Mo. —
A picture taken before the Joplin High School prom this spring shows Cooper Vocelka dressed in a tux, his date fixing a boutonniere on his lapel. On top of his head was hair, growing back as thick as it used to be before chemotherapy.
“He was pretty excited about that,” said Ron Vocelka, Cooper’s father.
The Carl Junction teen whose fundraising efforts earned recognition from a national nonprofit cancer group and several local groups died early Sunday at his home. He was 17.
Cooper will be remembered by classmates, friends and others for the two brain tumors he fought, and for helping other children fight their illnesses.
His fundraiser, Play it Forward, raised about $2,000 in a few months. Funds were used to buy toys, books and other gifts for patients at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City — the same hospital where Cooper was treated.
A portion of the money went to patients Cooper’s age, and bought them earbuds, nail polish, movies and teen magazines.
His efforts were recognized by Voices Against Brain Cancer, a national nonprofit for cancer research, and he was named an Everyday Hero in April by the local chapter of the American Red Cross
The last thing Cooper and his family bought was about $150 worth of books by Dr. Seuss.
Ron Vocelka said Cooper was studying the philosophy of the beloved children’s author, and he was particularly inspired by the story of the Sneetches — those star-bellied and plain-bellied creatures that learn to work out their differences in the end.
“The time before the last time we were there (Children’s Mercy), he had noticed that there were no Dr. Seuss books,” Ron Vocelka said. “We went to Books-A-Million and bought a bunch, and took them up in April.”
Cooper fought two brain tumors during his teen years — both anaplastic ependymomas, which are relatively rare, according to the Childhood Brain Tumor Foundation. About 200 cases are diagnosed each year in the United States.
The first was treated when he was 13 with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. The second was spotted in September 2011.
After Cooper underwent the same procedure several times, doctors told the family in October that further surgery could not remove the rest of the tumor, and that it could only be slowed.
Cooper in November said a strong faith helped him keep a positive outlook. He planned to register at Crowder College and enter youth ministry after graduation.
“As bad as what I’m going through is, I know of kids who have the same thing, and it’s much more serious,” Cooper said then. “They are going through worse than what I’m going through.”
During recovery from his second round of treatment, he rediscovered his guitar and came up with a fundraising idea. He decided to play in public wherever he could. As part of his Play it Forward fundraiser, any tips that he earned were used to buy presents for children at Children’s Mercy Hospital.
He didn’t get to play as much as he would like because of his battle with cancer.
But the way he inspired his classmates made a lasting impression on his father, who said he was moved to see students at Joplin High School raise hundreds of dollars and pick out presents for the patients at Children’s Mercy.
Others also were inspired. A chili cook-off in March at First United Methodist Church in Joplin ended up raising $6,600, which was donated to the CERN Foundation, a network that researches ependymomas such as Cooper’s.
Ron Vocelka said his son’s ability to handle a terminal diagnosis and remain positive and focused on others was remarkable.
“Sure, he could get mad about his situation, but he always qualified it by saying, ‘I’m not trying to sound bitter,’” he said. “I’m so proud of him. He was a much better man than I ever was.”
Cooper loved playing guitar, art, photography and skateboarding. A former student at Joplin High School, he lived in Carl Junction with his family after their home was hit by the May 22, 2011, tornado.
Funeral arrangements are pending with Mason-Woodard Mortuary, Joplin.