Setterdahl turns adversity into promise: collecting donations for Stockings for Strength

Whitney Setterdahl knows what it is like to be a teenager battling cancer.

The University of Illinois was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer when she was 18.

As a teenager battling cancer, Setterdahl went back and forth between pediatric oncology appointments as well as regular adult oncologist appointments. While she was at her different doctors appointments, Setterdahl noticed a pattern.  In pediatrics the waiting rooms were filled with toys for the little children and in regular oncology waiting rooms there were magazines geared towards adults.

“But as a teen, I felt out of place and quite honestly, alone,” Setterdahl said.  “And yet I saw teens just like me, walking the same halls.”

This experience motivated Setterdahl to make a difference in the lives of teens with cancer and start Stockings for Strength.

Setterdahl said said that she wanted to make a difference in the lives of teenagers battling cancer.

“While I cannot take away their pain or fight their battle for them, I can provide them with a smile and a piece of normalcy in their hectic and difficult lives,” she said “As a survivor, I want them to know I am thinking of them and I believe in them.”

Whitney’s mother, Nikki Setterdahl, said the entire family is proud of Whitney for taking on this project.  

Nikki said the family was so focused on taking care of Whitney when she was diagnosed with cancer that they didn’t notice the gap the teens at the cancer center seemed to slip into, but Whitney did.  Nikki said that when Whitney first said she wanted to take $250 and fill stockings for teens that the family was happy she had something to positive to focus on since Whitney would be undergoing cancer treatments herself during the holidays.

The original $250 was donated by a T-shirt company after her friends made bracelets and T-shirts that said ‘I fight with Whit’ to support her after her initial diagnosis.

However, Whitney doesn’t just give back to teens during the holiday season.

Last summer the family was in St. Louis for a week while Whitney had medical treatments to prepare her for scans to ensure she was cancer free.

In the treatment center there was a young teen that was weak and ill.

The teen asked her mom if people were looking at her.

“This broke Whit’s heart, so much so that we went and bought some little gifts and a card that she wrote in it, telling the girl that yes, she was looking at her because she saw such amazing  strength in her,” Nikki said. “We left the bag at the reception check in, just as a little something to brighten some of her darkest days. This is what cancer has given Whit, a perspective she never would have had, a passion to help teenagers feel like they fit somewhere.”

Whitney is currently collecting items to place in her Stockings for Strength. She then delivers those stockings to teens in the cancer center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.

Whitney decided to collect items for teens because donations are few and far between for children ages 13 to 21. Whitney said pediatrics usually receive significantly more donations.

“And while I would never, ever discourage this, there is a huge gap of children who may be too old for teddy bears but are still in the midst of the battle of their life and I want to let them know I have been there,” Whitney  said. “Making their life more fun, easier, and more comfortable is my main goal.”

Nikki said their family has learned from Whitney that adversity doesn’t define you.

“I really think that Stockings for Strength has been a way for Whit to take some kind of control,” she said. “Positive control over a situation she had no control over. She found a way to turn one of the biggest obstacles into one of the things she is most proud of.”

Whitney is collecting card games, board games, fuzzy socks, pajama pants, chapstick, handheld games, Nerf toys, holiday decorations, sports memorabilia or trading cards, jewelry, lotion, hand sanitizer, craft kits, nail polish, sensitive-skin friendly make-up, puzzles and other fun stocking stuffers.

Nikki said she wants to make sure the community knows that any donation, no matter how big or small, is appreciated.

Donation boxes will be placed this week at  Mercantile Antiques, Geschunk Coffee Shop, Island Travel Hub in Main Street Station and the St. Joseph Library.

People can also donate money via  Cash, check, and in-kind donations can be mailed to: Stockings for Strength P.O. Box 246 Ogden, IL 61859.

Whitney has been doing the project for three years and has been overwhelmed at the response from the community.

“This fundraiser benefits such a special and specific niche of individuals who my heart aches for every day and it is so incredible for me to know that other people believe in what I have experienced and want to join me in helping make it better,” Whitney said.  “It’s so humbling and amazing to see how many others are inspired or have also been affected and want to give back in the same way.”

Nikki said she too has been humbled by all the support Stockings for Strength has received over the years.

Nikki said when Whitney originally told people about her project someone suggested starting a Go Fund Me but Whitney wasn’t sure people would donate.

“Wow, did the community step up,” Nikki said. “Her Go Fund Me exceeded her goal, and the mailbox was getting mail all of the time, along with people who were shopping for gifts and school kids who were bringing donations into their classrooms also.”

Nikki said each year the community steps up and helps Whitney achieve her goal of helping teenagers battling cancer.

“It is a blessing and so amazing to be a part of, watching the joy it brings to my little girl, knowing other teens will know someone is thinking of them, brings me to tears every day during this time,” Nikki said.

With the money raised, Whitney and her family go shopping for items for the stockings.

While the trip is fun, it is also stressful because Whitney wants to find the perfect items for the teens who will receive the stockings.

Nikki said Whitney sorts donations days before filling the stockings. She takes an inventory and decides what she needs to purchase more of, after comparing prices at stores to make sure she is getting the most for her money.

Then the family starts the process of filling the stockings.

“Our entire family spends the evening together, filling and sorting while Whit supervises to be sure every stocking is filled with a balance of fun and useful times,” Nikki said.

“Also, a hand written note accompanies each one, a note of encouragement and love. And to be honest, this is one of the best nights of the holiday season for my family.”

Whitney said the best part of the project is delivery day. While it can be stressful for Whitney to get the stockings to the hospital in one piece, all the frustrations are forgotten as Whitney drops the stockings off at the hospital.  

“Each year I have at least one family or parent stop me in the lobby as we are unloading and thank me for providing such an abundance of donations,” she said.  “It is so humbling to feel their gratitude. While I’m not able to deliver the gifts myself, some of the amazing patient coordinators at Barnes always keep me in the loop as to when they have all been distributed. I think every single year getting that email has made me cry a little bit.”

If you are a teacher, troop leader, or are involved in any other organization that would like to be interested in setting up a group donation drive, contact Setterdahl at


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