When Benicio Martinez heard about his school’s fundraiser for a childhood cancer charity, he knew that he wanted to help. So he volunteered to shave his head and raised more than $1,000 in the process. But in a cruel twist of fate, just weeks later, the results of a scan revealed some devastating news.
Benicio, whom friends and family know as Benny, is based in Park Ridge, Illinois. There, he lives with his mom Michelle, dad Ed and brother Christian. And according to his family, Benny is always putting other people before himself.
“He’s the kind of kid who is always worried about others and how things are affecting them. He has a big heart,” his mom, Michelle, told PEOPLE in March 2017. So it perhaps wasn’t a big surprise to her when Benny revealed he was taking part in a fundraiser at his school.
The middle school threw the charity event in aid of the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. This volunteer-run charity funds vital research into childhood cancers in the hope of one day finding a cure. Benny therefore wanted to do something impactful to help other kids in need.
So at the fundraiser in March 2016, the kind-hearted 12-year-old decided to shave his head, and Benny managed to raise $1,630 for the cancer charity. In fact, he was the best fundraiser in his grade and the third top in his entire school.
A few days later, during Spring Break, the Martinez family went on vacation. They had jetted off to Orlando, Florida, where they would visit Walt Disney World. A few days into the trip, however, Benny began to feel ill.
All of a sudden, Benny started to suffer from headaches. He also began to vomit. As a result, his family rushed him to the nearest hospital, and that’s when doctors gave them some awful news.
Following a CT scan, doctors found that Benny had a tumor on his brain, and the walnut-sized growth called for immediate surgery. So surgeons removed the lump during a grueling seven-hour long surgery.
But Benny’s ordeal didn’t end there. No, following the operation, Benny had a rare condition known as posterior fossa syndrome. Consequently, the youngster was left unable to swallow, walk or talk. Then, things got even worse.
Three day after his surgery, doctors confirmed that Benny’s tumor was in fact cancerous. They diagnosed him with medulloblastoma, the most commonly occurring brain cancer in youngsters. Naturally, the news devastated Benny and his family.
“I thought they must be joking,” Benny later told PEOPLE. “When I found out it was real, I got pretty scared.” However, showing his selfless side once more, Benny seemed more concerned about ruining their family holiday, according to his mom.
Benny remained in a Florida hospital for two weeks, and then medics transferred him back to Chicago. There, he began proton radiation therapy as well as an intensive course of chemotherapy. And in order to battle his posterior fossa, the youngster also required speech and physical therapy.
Yet despite everything he was going through, Benny remained as generous as ever. And when his community held a fundraiser in his honor, he donated the proceeds to St. Baldrick’s. He hoped one day he would help raise $100,000 for the charity.
All the while, Benny was battling with the taxing side effects of his treatment. However, his determination never seemed to waver. And soon enough, he began to regain the ability to talk and – with the aid of a stroller – walk.
“There is nothing easy about what Benny is going through,” mom Michelle told PEOPLE. “And yet he handles every challenge with a wonderful spirit, maturity and optimism. He’s a remarkable, intelligent and funny kid with an old soul.”
“Through it all, he’s stayed positive and touched many lives in spite of facing several setbacks,” Benny’s dad, Ed, added during the family’s conversation with PEOPLE. “It’s been difficult for him to lose his independence and rely on others to do things for him. But he’s making good progress, determined to make a comeback.”
Meanwhile, Benny’s inspirational attitude didn’t go unnoticed by those at St. Baldrick’s Foundation. In fact, the charity was so impressed with his fighting spirit that it chose to honor him. So in 2017, Benny was named as one of the charity’s five ambassadors.
As such, he became a representative for other kids suffering from childhood cancers. “Ambassadors represent the thousands whose lives have been touched by childhood cancer,” a charity spokesperson explained in a YouTube video in February 2017. “As an ambassador, Benny’s story will be featured by St. Baldrick’s on its website, in the calendar [and] on social media.”
For now, Benny is being tutored at home until he can walk once again. He hopes he’ll soon be fighting fit and able to enjoy video-game battles with his brother Christian. His doctors, meanwhile, are optimistic about his future. “We’re hopeful that with rehabilitation, he’ll continue to get stronger,” Dr. Larissa Pavone told PEOPLE.
And when he does, Benny has vowed to throw himself into fundraising once more. In fact, once his hair returns after chemo, he might even cut it off again. “If it helps someone, sure I’d have my head shaved again,” he told PEOPLE. “Losing your hair to help find a cure is worth it. I really like giving back.”