Their 5-year-old son died of cancer. These S.C. parents broke a world record to honor him

CHARLESTON, S.C. — The day before he died, 5-year-old Sam Lee built a fort out of Lincoln Logs.

The notched wooden logs invented more than 100 years ago were more than a childhood building tool for Sam; building things from the logs gave him a sense of accomplishment and empowered him, even as a brain tumor slowly killed him.

“He was immobilized, (so) he didn’t walk well,” Sam’s father, Michael Lee, told The College Today, a publication at the College of Charleston, where he is a communication professor. “So, anything that he could take control over and build that was within his immediate space became a real source of activity for him.”

Legos were too small and difficult for Sam to play with, his mother, Erin Benson, told The State. On March 14, 2017, one year after Sam died, Benson expressed grief in a social media post over her son’s death, and asked for suggestions on how to “use this energy.” A friend suggested a Lincoln Log build.

Since then, people around the country have sent Benson more than 30,000 Lincoln Logs — some old, some new.

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So, Benson and Lee set out to break the Guinness World Record for the largest Lincoln Log structure to mark the two-year anniversary of Sam’s death. With Purpose, a South Carolina-based organization that Benson launched in 2014 to advance treatments for childhood cancer, hosted the build at the Belmond Charleston Place hotel.

Through 24 hours of building over the course of two days, a team constructed a massive fort using 17,504 logs, according to Benson. They broke the previous Guinness World Record of 17,384, but must submit their evidence to be officially certified as the record-holder, which Benson said takes three to five months.

Only one person could build at a time, Benson said. And With Purpose’s architectural partner, Novus Architects, had a team of eight that placed most of the logs.

The purpose of building the massive fort wasn’t to break a record, Benson said, but to get people to stop and ask what they were doing, which allowed Benson to educate them on the amount of funding that childhood cancer research receives.

Only 4 percent of federal government cancer research funding goes to study pediatric cancer, according to the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation.

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It’s still possible to sponsor a log until the build comes down on April 9, Benson said. For $10, donors will receive one of the more than 17,000 logs used in the build. For $30, they can have a name engraved on the log and turn the log into a key chain.

Benson will have Sam’s name engraved on one log. Other parents are engraving the name of a child who is fighting cancer. And some people put their own name on the log to commemorate being part of the fight against the disease.

“It’s a spectacle, and it makes people stop and notice it and ask, ‘Why did you do this?’ ” Benson said of the build. “I can see (Sam’s) face, if he would have seen it — what it would have looked like.”

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