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Nonprofit brings joy to cancer fighters in Fort Worth

By Rebecca ChristophersonJuly 11, 2024No Comments

The Tough Ladies event raises money for cancer research and is one of three events Tough Stars Give Back holds throughout the year.

Nonprofit brings joy to cancer fighters in Fort Worth

By Tori Couch
Photography by Olaf Growald

Inside La Estacion Ballroom on Fort Worth’s Northside a few days before Mother’s Day, 14 women battling cancer enjoyed a day of pampering, rotating among hair, makeup and nail stations and relaxing in recliners.

As the pampering stations packed up and dinner was being brought in, Gabriel Starling exchanged smiles and friendly conversations with each woman at the Tough Ladies event. Gabe’s words of encouragement and presence were important to these women, because his 501(c)3 nonprofit, Tough Stars Give Back, put on the event. At 16, Gabe, a student at All Saints’ Episcopal School in Fort Worth, isn’t your typical nonprofit leader. Because it was a school day, Gabe stopped by in the late afternoon. He had watched from afar at first.

Gabriel Starling, with the help of his mother, Gloria, founded Tough Stars Give Back while in elementary school after learning about the impact cancer can have on people’s lives.

“I’m not really much of a person to go up to people, but I like watching it from the background,” Gabe said. “Before I got there, nobody really saw me, and so I kind of just saw that they were having a good time, and I liked that they were having a good time.”

With the help of his mother, Gloria Starling, Gabe founded Tough Stars Give Back while in elementary school. Its mission is to engage community partners in support of students, young professionals and future Fort Worth leaders, and it puts on events throughout the year that raise money for cancer research, promote literacy and support organizations that build future leaders.

Gabe didn’t understand what cancer was or how it can impact people’s lives when he first heard of the disease at age 7. But he quickly discovered it wasn’t a good thing. 

“It was my mom’s friend, she had cancer,” Gabe, who will enter his sophomore year at All Saints’ this fall, said. “And then I felt bad. I didn’t know what it was. So I gave my mom $20, telling her to help find a cure.”

Gabe’s donation, which his mother notes was probably more than $20, went to Gloria’s friend, Emily McLaughlin, a plastic surgeon in Fort Worth. McLaughlin is now a cancer survivor.

“How do you explain to a 7-year-old what cancer is, specifically breast cancer?” Gloria, Tough Star’s president and managing partner of The Capital Grille Fort Worth, said. “So it was really with more conversations after that that he began to understand, this is what it is and this is what could happen. And the whole thing that he really was having a hard time with is this could happen to Mom.”

That thought inspired a tagline now on the nonprofit’s website, “No kid should ever be without a mama.” 

The more Gabe learned about cancer, the more he wanted to help. So, he turned his love of basketball into a fundraising opportunity. For every basket he made during a season he played, Gabe set aside $5 from his allowance. He and his mother don’t recall how much he raised, but it was not a small number.

“I mean, he’s a pretty good player,” Gloria said, sitting with her son at a booth inside The Capital Grille.

“I don’t remember. It was a long time ago,” Gabe said. “But I know it’s a lot of money because my mom was like, this is a big deal. So I was like, ‘dang, it must be really good.’”

His mother’s friends heard about Gabe’s efforts and made their own commitments. Along the way, a friend who worked as a banker suggested establishing a 501(c)3 foundation. That designation came in 2018.

“That’s when we decided to make it an actual foundation,” Gloria said. “And [my friends] were committed. Every season, we would send them how many baskets Gabe had made, and they would send us a check for whatever baskets Gabe had made.”

Gabe put together other fundraisers and his efforts were noticed by the Fort Worth community. The Fort Worth Business Press honored Gabe with the 40 Under 40 Young Achiever Award in 2020, and the Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce named him the 2019 Community Advocate of the Year. More recently, the Association of Fundraising Professionals Fort Worth Chapter named Gabe the Outstanding Youth in Philanthropy award winner for 2023. 

Among those early fundraisers was the initial Tough Guys event at Kirkpatrick Middle School in 2018, featuring a bike and basketball drive. The second Tough Guys event at Game On raised $5,000 for Fort Worth ISD athletics.

Tough Guys pits the Fort Worth police and fire departments against each other in an annual basketball game with the winner receiving a trophy — which the police have retained for several years, Gabe says — and the proceeds benefiting a local school or nonprofit. It has evolved into a community event, and the 2024 version is slated for October at HOPE Farm.

“That one’s my favorite one, mainly because of basketball,” Gabe said. 

In addition to the game, local organizations have provided free products and services to attendees, including bike repairs, haircuts, food bank distributions of dry goods, toothbrushes and toothpaste provided by a dentist and eye care.

Tough Guys has raised about $46,000 over the past two events, according to Gloria, and the host sites can use the funds to address specific needs. Polytechnic High School and J.P. Elder Middle School hosted the most recent events.

Watching moms get haircuts during Tough Guys gave Gabe the idea for an event pampering moms. The first year, Tough Ladies recruited 14 women to support another 14 who were fighting cancer; each recruit’s goal was to raise or give $1,400, Gloria said. Gabe’s jersey number as a kid served as the inspiration for the number 14.

This year’s event started with lunch at Don Artemio restaurant on Fort Worth’s Westside, foll

Nail polish and fake eyelashes were among the items used during the pampering session.

owed by the afternoon of pampering and a catered dinner. During the dinner, Cancer Warrior Martial Arts, a local organization that honors children under treatment for cancer with an honorary black belt, presented each woman a black belt.

The women also received pink fuzzy robes and purple blankets with phrases like “you are courageous,” you are brave” and “you are gorgeous.” And before the event ended, Gloria let the women know the recliners they used at the event would be delivered to their homes later that week.

The recliners, like many facets of the Tough Ladies event, were donated. When a social media post requested help filling up the goody bags, someone fully sponsored every bag, Gloria said.

“I think the only thing that this year our foundation paid for was really the blankets and the robes,” she said. 

Cancer Care Services, a Fort Worth nonprofit and beneficiary of Tough Stars’ early fundraisers, received the $20,000 raised through Tough Ladies each of the past two years. This year, Tough Stars’ board will choose entities based on recommendations from the women who are fighting cancer, Gloria said. 

Another Tough Stars event, Tough Kids, puts on a kickball game and promotes literacy. It encourages 14 children to each donate or raise $114 for the NCAA Readers Become Leaders program through the Fort Worth Sports Commission and commit to read 1,114 minutes during the summer.

The event started in 2023 and the second kickball game will occur this summer.

“I know kids nowadays,” Gabe said. “They just want to be with their friends all the time. You still gotta have time for school, so that’s why I wanted to do that.”

Fort Worth City Council members participated in the 2023 game, creating a competitive, celebrity-like atmosphere.

Literacy has been important to Gabe since the foundation’s early days. In 2019, he raised $11,000 through a campaign with the Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to support a coalition led by Read Fort Worth.

Community support has helped Tough Stars’ impact grow. Donations are earmarked for a specific initiative or the general fund, depending on the donor’s preference.

Tough Stars does not pay board members or use any funds on administration, giving back 100% of the money raised through events, sponsorships and donations, Gloria said. The board has also become an important part of the foundation.

“I think that circle of friendship is what’s made it so much easier, not just for me, but for all the dreams that [Gabe] has and all the things that he wants to do,” she said.

Gabe is busy outside of Tough Stars, participating in football, basketball and track while staying on top of schoolwork. But, he still wants to ensure the nonprofit remains a high priority and leaves a lasting impact.

“I want to keep it going for a long time,” he said. “As long as I can.”