Editor's note: This story is part of our “50 Stories of People Helping People" series. As we celebrate Penske's 50th anniversary in 2019, we are spotlighting associates every Friday who are making a difference in their communities.
A rough-and-tumble boy who loved wrestling and helping others, Torrin Breneman was determined to give back what childhood cancer had robbed from so many children: their hair.
For three years, the Michigan teen grew his hair to donate to an organization that made wigs for children, only to become diagnosed a few months later with Hodgkin lymphoma.
Sadly, Torrin's courageous 14-month battle with cancer came to an end just before Christmas, but not before touching the hearts of so many who knew him, including a group of Penske associates in Warren, Michigan, who rallied around the family to support them through Torrin's fight.
“Meeting him changed us as individuals and as a district," said Taylor Brown, an assistant district administrator who, along with Kelsey Ginther, customer experience specialist, spearheaded a fundraising campaign, which eventually raised $4,000 for the family.
Yet, it was Torrin who gave so much to the associates in ways they said would last for a lifetime.
“The reason we all adopted him was because of the mentality he had – that even though he was going through something so hard, he was willing to do what he could to make someone else feel better," Brown said. “For all of us, that brought a sense of what we could do as individuals to make the most of the life we have been given."
It Started With A Cough
For many children, Christmas is a time of expectation. For Torrin, in the midst of his own cancer fight, it was a time to give.
Instead of gifts for himself, Torrin asked for gift cards to purchase Christmas presents for hospitalized children who were too sick to spend the holidays at home.
“Most of these kids are worse than me, and they have less than me," Torrin would often say to his father, Jason Breneman.
Torrin's own cancer battle began with a persistent cough. Months later, Jason and his wife Carrie would learn their son had Hodgkin lymphoma.
Following the diagnosis, Torrin underwent treatments to fight back but nothing worked, including experimental treatments and protocols normally given to adults.
This meant long hospital stays for Torrin, which forced him to miss school, but he was not without the love and comfort of his parents. His mother was by his side every day.
Both parents were forced to quit their jobs to be with Torrin throughout his cancer battle, which put a strain on the family's finances. The couple also cared for Torrin's younger sister.
There were some fundraisers to assist the family, but Mr. Breneman said the Penske fundraiser was the most impactful.
“There were a few fundraisers which the family wouldn't be able to make it this far without, and we are so grateful and appreciative, especially Penske, which by far has put on the largest fundraiser for Torrin," Mr. Breneman said.
Months before meeting Torrin's family, Brown participated in a local event to raise money for Torrin's medical expenses and to assist the family.
A few weeks later, Brown and Ginther were discussing ways the Detroit District could become involved in community service, and the idea of helping Torrin's family was brought forward.
The pair organized a can and bottle drive to raise money for the family. With a district match, the total rose to $4,000.
Torrin and his family received the check on Oct. 26 at Penske's Warren location. It was “Pink Out Day," a day set aside by associates across the company to promote breast cancer awareness.
“We figured what better day to help this sweet little boy than the day we are all showing our Pink Out love," Brown said.
As fate would have it, the family's vehicle broke down the day before, and without money to repair it, they had no way to travel.
“As an added gift, our service team offered to help the family fix their vehicle in their spare time to help reduce the cost to the family," Brown said.
When the family arrived, Torrin was presented with a bag full of Penske items, including winter hats, T-shirts, sweatshirts and other Penske items, including a fidget spinner.
“We also created a banner with his hashtag #TorrinStrong in his favorite color. All of the associates in the building signed it with best wishes and words of encouragement," Brown said.
“Seeing the happy tears of his father and the smiles around the room on all of our faces made one thing clear to me: Helping this little boy and his family meant more to us than we will ever be able to put into words," she said.
A Lasting Legacy
In the days leading up to Christmas, as his health began its final decline, Torrin never stopped thinking of others.
“Torrin's dad reached out us and let us know that Torrin asked since Penske helped him so much, was there any way we could help the kids on his hospital floor?" Brown said. “Even though he was not doing very well, he reached out to us to see if there was anything we could do."
Just as the conversation started to help make Torrin's Christmas wish for other children come true, the teen lost his battle and passed away. Torrin was just 13 years old.
Torrin's passing, while not unexpected, came so suddenly and deeply touched the Penske associates, who considered Torrin and his family a part of Penske's extended family.
“It affected all of us," Brown said. “We are really just focused on keeping his memory alive and making sure the changes he helped us make continue to grow."
For the associates, Torrin's legacy can be felt in a shift in how they view community service. They were able to see up close and personal the impact their community service can have on individuals.
Just before Christmas, the associates adopted six families from a school in Ohio. The families had limited means for basic necessities, so the associates purchased gifts for the children.
“It was an amazing experience. We were able to play games, eat lunch, do arts and crafts, decorate cookies and really just experience Christmas with them," Brown said. “We collected over 150 gifts for these children, which we delivered to their homes so their parents could place them under the tree for Christmas morning."
The associates have also committed each year to send gifts to hospitalized children at Christmas in memory of Torrin.
“Having Torrin here and seeing the impact that it made changed our mindset and outlook on the personal connection you can make in any situation," Brown said. “Seeing it has shown us the value of being part of the community."
By Bernie Mixon