WINSTON-SALEM — Clad in a pair of Minions-themed underwear and a white T-shirt, 4-year-old Angel Richards sat on his bed playing a game on the Wii while eating Goldfish crackers.
It could have been a scene from Angel’s home — except for the port attached to his chest for chemotherapy and the college student at his bedside on this Saturday afternoon at Brenner Children’s Hospital willing to help Angel fight his cancer with — wait for it — a pair of socks.
It sounds silly, but Jake Teitelbaum is serious about socks. He created the Resilience Project, which lets cancer patients design their own socks. Teitelbaum sells the $20 socks on his website, and half of net proceeds from each pair sold goes to support the patients and their families, such as 14-year-old Lilli Hicks of Greensboro.
“It was cool and something different,” Lilli, who has been battling acute myeloid leukemia for two years, said of the socks she got to design.
Lilli designed a pair of blue socks with a purple and pink owl — her favorite animal — stitched on them. She said she wears them about once a week.
Teitelbaum came up with the Resilience Project while fighting his own cancer, a form of Hodgkin’s lymphoma that is resistant to normal treatment. Teitelbaum, a senior at Wake Forest University, learned about the blood cancer in May 2015, the end of his junior year. He underwent regular and aggressive chemotherapy treatments, as well as an autologous stem cell transplant — where his own cells were transplanted — and has been in remission since October.
But throughout Teitelbaum’s treatment and stays in various hospitals, there were a couple of things that bothered him. One was that some of his fellow patients could not afford to pay for their care. He said one patient he became close with while on one hospital’s transplant floor had to start a GoFundMe page because she was struggling to pay for treatment.
“To me, that just seemed really wrong,” that she had that extra burden, Teitelbaum said.
And then there were the socks that the hospital issued to him as part of a “welcome packet” during his long-term stays.
Teitelbaum, a Connecticut native, had his stem cell transplant in Gainesville, Fla., where his father lives. He said the socks the hospital staff gave him were beige, generic, ugly and poorly made.
“They had no insulation, so your feet were cold,” said the soft-spoken Teitelbaum, who is majoring in business and Spanish. “They were bad socks.”
Teitelbaum refused them and wore his own socks instead during his 25-day stay for the transplant. He likes funky ones, such as a green and yellow Aztec patterned pair he wore often. A nurse he became close with even bought him a couple of pairs of socks, he said.
“I became kind of known as the guy on the floor with the weird socks,” he said.
Teitelbaum, 22, launched the Resilience Project at the end of September, and by the end of January it had raised nearly $7,000 for two families: Lilli and a young man in Winston-Salem. Angel’s socks are in production, and Teitelbaum said Resilience is working on bringing its fourth and fifth patients aboard.
He and his team — which includes his friends — visit families in the hospital or in their homes to get input about what kind of socks the patients would like. He has partnered with Piedmont Triad manufacturers to make them.
Not wearing the hospital’s socks was an act of rebellion that let Teitelbaum regain some control over his life. He said wearing his own socks when he was a patient helped him forget his circumstances and reminded him of who he really was.
“As small and ridiculous as it seems, it was powerful in that way,” he said.
As Teitelbaum was finishing his cancer fight, Angel was just beginning his.
His mother, Shellbe Antoine, moved with her four children from Queens, N.Y., to Greensboro in October 2015. Antoine said she wanted to raise them in a smaller, quieter environment with more trees and cleaner air.
Late last summer, she said the normally energetic Angel began suffering from fevers, complained of pains in his feet, and there were strange “bumps” on his body that she mistook for mosquito bites.
In October, doctors at Brenner diagnosed acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which occurs when the bone marrow makes too many immature white blood cells.
“So I knew that life would never be the same,” said Antoine, a 43-year-old single mother who has no family here. “I knew that ... the journey was just turning, you know, into something totally different for me and my four children.”
Angel is undergoing chemotherapy. He goes to Brenner every other week for four days at a time for treatments.
Antoine said a member of the hospital staff helped connect her with Teitelbaum, who she said calls her frequently and has visited Angel multiple times.
“He’s taken quite a personal interest, which means a lot,” she said.
In designing Angel’s socks, Teitelbaum said the boy and his mom disagreed about how they should look. Angel wanted them decorated with ninjas. His mother wanted angel wings stitched on the socks.
But the Resilience Project is not just about socks. When Teitelbaum was hospitalized, he said friends drove thousands of miles just to visit him. But he knows every patient doesn’t have that support.
So he often brings along his Resilience Project team members on patient visits for emotional support. On this Saturday, Grace Washko, an artist who helps design the socks, keeps Angel’s sisters — 11-year-old Unity and 8-year-old Faithful — entertained by drawing with them and playing board games such as Sorry. Colt Mienke played his guitar for the children. Angel played car and baseball games on the Wii with his 9-year-old brother, Solomon.
Antoine said the Resilience Project team provides a “positive connection.”
“I don’t have anybody that visits me because we don’t have family here,” Antoine said. “Not that we’re lonely. We’re together, but it does make a difference when you see other people come in and add on to it. Because there are times when I just want a break, but I can’t take a break. Can’t take a break from this job. I’m a mother 24/7. I’m on call. I’m on duty.”
Lilli, a homebound eighth-grader who normally attends Brown Summit Middle, had a cord blood stem cell transplant in May to treat her form of leukemia, which occurs when the bone marrow makes abnormal white or red blood cells, or platelets.
Lilli’s parents, Travis and Lou Anne Hicks, have stable employment — he’s a professor at UNC-Greensboro and she teaches music to preschoolers — and they have insurance. But costs for Lilli’s treatment exceed what insurance will pay. Travis Hicks said the money his family received from Resilience — combined with the fundraisers that family members, friends and their church have held — have helped them stay current on their bills.
And while the financial help was nice, they also liked that the sock project helped keep their daughter’s mind and spirit strong during the long weeks in the hospital.
“Designing a sock and having it made and mass-produced was really a great opportunity for her,” Travis Hicks said. “So it helped her, I think, know that she could do something creative that people would appreciate and enjoy and wear. And she was able to do it on a huge scale.”