Imagine Dragons founded the Tyler Robinson Foundation to help families afford the nonmedical costs of pediatric cancer.
The four members of Imagine Dragons have had plenty of life-changing moments, including getting signed by a major record label and winning a Grammy Award.
But when the musicians look back at their time together, they agree that nothing rivals the night they played a small Utah club about seven years ago and met 16-year-old Tyler Robinson, a fan who became a friend and their inspiration to start a charitable organization.
A Powerful Moment
While undergoing chemotherapy for the soft-tissue cancer rhabdomyosarcoma, Robinson had found encouragement in the alternative rock band’s first single, “It’s Time,” which stated that “the path to heaven runs through miles of clouded hell.” In a Facebook message to lead singer Dan Reynolds, Robinson’s brother explained why the song meant so much to the teenager and mentioned that the two would be coming to the Utah show.
“That night, I explained Tyler’s story right before we played the song, Reynolds recalled Oct. 17 during the Washington Post’s Chasing Cancer program, held twice a year to report on the latest advancements in the fight against cancer. “His brother held him up on his shoulders, and it ended up being this really powerful moment, maybe the most impactful moment of our 10-year career. I can’t explain to you the magic that was in that room, but I’m sure it’s something other people have experienced, when you go to shows and feel very connected to a group of strangers over a song. After the show I got his phone number and we became friends throughout the years. We watched Tyler as he beat cancer and rang the bell, we got close to his brother and family, and we watched when Tyler found out that he had cancer again and then passed away.”
Just one day after that loss, Reynolds was on the phone with Robinson’s brother, Jesse, asking what the band could do to “help Tyler’s impact and legacy to live on.” Bassist Ben McKee described the desire to help as being “like a lightning bolt — it was clear we had to do something.”
Jesse suggested starting a foundation that would help families cover the nonmedical expenses associated with pediatric cancer. The musicians agreed, and the Tyler Robinson Foundation was born.
Launching a Foundation
The Las Vegas-based foundation helps middle-income families affected by pediatric cancer to pay for expenses such as traveling for treatment, household costs such as mortgages and clothing, and even sometimes Christmas presents and vacations. “We have a process to try to find families who are not supported by other programs, people above the poverty line, because there are other programs supporting them if they’re below that,” Reynolds said.
Through the foundation, which operates on donated funds, each participating family is assigned an advisor who determines financial need, helps with budgeting and puts a plan in place for monetary stability after treatment has been completed. Families cannot apply directly to the foundation but must be recommended by a social worker at a partner hospital.
Since it was launched six years ago, the organization has helped 10,000 families around the world and raised nearly $10 million. To get it off the ground, the band partnered with many, including Robinson’s family.
“I asked his family because we didn’t know what was going to be the most impactful,” Reynolds said. “They said there are a lot of unforeseen costs that come into a family’s life when a child is diagnosed with cancer. A lot of times, a parent has to drop out from work, and you might have to change the child’s diet, which could be a lot more expensive, and then they have mortgages and car payments. The average (cost of a hospital stay for pediatric cancer is) $40,000, and over 15,000 kids are diagnosed with cancer a year.”
The band members also worked with a business expert on the project.
“Our first step was to call our business manager, Jeff Schwartz, who was a cancer survivor, and he immediately jumped on board, sacrificed so much time and effort and gave so much of himself — and financially,” McKee said. “He passed away this last year, and we honored him at our gala. It would not have been possible without him and without Tyler and without Tyler’s family. It was a process of good intentions and everything coming together in a way that it truly must have been meant to be.”
Remembering an Inspiration
Now, when the band members go to a pediatric oncology ward to perform for and sing with children, it reminds them of the people they’re helping through the foundation, said drummer Daniel Platzman.
“They are so resilient and happy, and they have so much life in them,” lead guitarist Wayne Sermon said of the children. “When you go to the hospital you expect to see sick people, and you don’t know how the kids are going to be, but every single time they’re smiling the biggest smile you’ve ever seen in your life. They’re so full of energy and hope. Tyler was just like that — he was the epitome of that.”
Robinson stayed that way until the end of his life, embracing both hope and humor, Reynolds said.
“He was texting me the week before he passed,” Reynolds said. “We had a show coming up in Utah, and he said, ‘There’s this girl I really like, and I was hoping you could hook me up with a ticket — I did have cancer.”
Robinson didn’t make it to the show, but he stayed in the musicians’ minds and hearts.
“The night we met Tyler, it was clear that something bigger than us was happening in that room, and it’s something that has carried over into the rest of our lives, McKee said. “The most meaningful thing we’ve been able to do is be part of this foundation.”