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Count it all joy

Community Feature

Posted: August 24, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: August 24, 2014 2:00 a.m.

Ron and Nola Chandler, parents of Brandon Chandler, discuss the Brand Chandler Foundation's start and mission in an episode of "In the Warehouse." Austin Dave / The Signal

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Before a third battle with cancer claimed his life, 28-year-old Brandon Chandler would have been found in Pitchess Detention Center, surrounded by inmates, teaching them how to hold a camera.

A professional filmmaker and volunteer teacher, Chandler commanded the group of chiseled, burly inmates flexing tattooed limbs and talking about a life on the outside.

Chandler never got over 5 feet 3 inches. His hair never really grew back, leaving a playful fuzz coating his nearly bald head.

Heavy, prolonged doses of radiation would forever alter Chandler’s appearance after his first, childhood cancer —­ the one that doctors said would certainly kill him.

“In stature, he was an underdog,” said his mother, Valencia resident Nola Chandler. “He wanted to give the underdog a chance.”

From mentoring inmates to producing local films, Brandon Chandler captured life’s light through the lens of a camera. Now, his friends and family are working to carry on his quest to give to others.

“I think a lot of people who had those odds against them would have crawled into a hole,” Nola said. “He was the most amazing individual I knew, and I think most people who knew him would agree.”


Brandon

Chandler was diagnosed with Stage 4 neuroblastoma at age 7. A football-sized tumor protruded from his spine into his midsection, causing his stomach to distend, Nola said.

He wasn’t supposed to survive his first cancer; by the time they caught it, the cancer had spread to so many of his organs that doctors couldn’t remove it all.

After intense radiation therapy and other treatments, Chandler walked away from the hospital cancer free and certain God had a plan for him, Nola said.

A strong-willed boy with a mind of his own, Chandler was changed by the cancer, softened in many ways.

“He got sick and no longer had control,” Nola recalled. “He had to do what he was told or would die. You can’t go through that and not be changed.”

His second battle, thyroid cancer at age 19, seemed like a “non-event” compared to his first fight, Nola said. Though his voice was altered ­— giving it a scratchy, gritty texture — Chandler moved on quickly.

When Chandler landed in the hospital with chest pains at age 28, the doctors found tumors. The Chandlers knew better than to hope for benign growths.

About 75 days after Chandler was diagnosed with Stage 4 liver cancer, he was gone.

A deeply faithful man, Chandler lived out the remainder of his days sure God would heal him, as he did with the first cancer — an apparent miracle, Nola said.

Forever optimistic, a dying Chandler quoted the Bible to his mother: “He said, ‘Mom, count it all joy when you fall into various trials.’”

The verse serves as a reminder of Chandler’s faith and dedication to his work, despite insurmountable challenges.

“That doesn’t mean we’re always happy; it doesn’t mean we don’t shed a lot of tears,” Nola said. “But we know Brandon would be very pleased that we’re carrying on his work.”

Brandon’s work

The same year Chandler was diagnosed with his first cancer, he got his hands on his first video camera.

“I kept slapping his hand away from it because I didn’t want him to break it,” Nola said laughing.

Chandler spent the rest of his life making movies, from “goofy little films” with the neighborhood as his cast to a feature-length documentary about his own life, produced with his friend Branden Morris.

After Chandler finished at Saugus High School, he knew he didn’t want to go the Hollywood route. He took courses at COC and eventually fell into an unexpected classroom — a jail cell.

Chandler volunteered for Pitchess’ Merit Program, an in-house education program that equips qualifying inmates with life and work skills before they’re released. Outreach group Hollywood Impact Studios partners with Pitchess to provide film courses, and HIS recruited Chandler as one of its teachers.

Two to three days a week, Chandler taught a variety of video-related courses from shooting to directing, helping inmates build an employable skill set and a means of self expression.

Former inmate Desiree Gonzales recalls the “hard and broken” inmates changed by these courses.

“These programs actually change people,” she said, tears filling her eyes. “You can see a big difference in people. They speak out; they talk. They’re hungry for these classes. You get strength from them believing in you.”

Brandon Chandler Foundation

After Chandler died, his friend Morris was asked by HIS to continue teaching courses at Pitchess.

Inspired by the work and Chandler’s passion, Morris and the Chandlers decided to start a nonprofit continuing Chander’s work.

Recently approved for nonprofit status, the Brandon Chandler Foundation offers supply kits to inmates the moment they’re released from jail, helping them stay on the right path until they find housing and employment.

“We wanted to find the gap in services,” Nola said.

When released, inmates are given the bag of clothes they were booked in and nothing else. Many times, the clothes no longer fit, forcing inmates like Gonzales to wear a paper jumpsuit given to them by the jail, she said.

With no money and possibly no support system on the outside, they can be released in the middle of the night in unsafe areas, Nola said.

“When I came out, I didn’t have anything,” Gonzales said. “I had nobody — I guess I burned all my bridges. But the foundation reached out. They believed in me.”

Inmates who are especially in need are identified and recommended to the foundation, which then passes on the “Fish Kit.”

Gonzales received clothes, toiletries, a bus pass and a lot of support. Today she volunteers with the foundation.

“I was looking for someone to believe in me because I couldn’t believe in myself,” she said. “All that is in my past today. The foundation reached out; they gave me hope. Today, I know that I am better, and I am worth something.”

Fish Kits cost about $100 to put together, and the foundation is holding a fundraiser today to raise the money to produce them.

The End of Summer Carnival features a silent auction, magic show, ice cream eating contest, twinkie eating contest and Lego building contest for children and adults, as well as food and other games. Admission is free, but attraction tickets and sponsored Fish Kits are available for purchase, as well as sponsored Fish Kits.

The End of Summer Carnival is located at the Bridgeport Clubhouse, 27002 Edgewater Lane, from 3-7 p.m. today. For information or to support, visit brandonchandler.org.

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