PORTLAND, Ore. — The COVID-19 pandemic has been tough on so many people. It's been especially hard for kids with cancer or other serious health issues, whose immune systems are compromised.
Kids are fighting for their lives in hospital rooms every day. Their days often change dramatically. It’s in those situations that kids often feel isolated or alone. But volunteers with the Children's Cancer Association (CCA), also known as mentors, help offset that by bringing a little joy. Typically volunteers spend time with their kids, also known as Chemo Pals, in person. They play games and visit with one another to help take their mind off all the hospital time.
“How can we bring them joy and ease their hospital visits,” said Emma Alfonso, a CCA mentor.
Then the pandemic hit and hospitals became off limits to most visitors. But that didn't stop Alfonso from connecting with her Chemo Pal, a smiley toddler named Lauren.
Little Lauren got a big surprise when she looked out her hospital window.
“[In the picture] you see her looking out and I brought Kona because she loves dogs so much, and had to put a CCA t-shirt on him of course. Even though she can't read, I still made her a sign,” said Alfonso.
She isn't the only one making sure to stay connected. CCA has thrown trivia nights on the online video chat platform Zoom. Other volunteers have hung encouraging signs or even thrown parades for their kids.
Like Alfonso, CCA mentor Shawn Mahmood also showed up to the hospital to surprise his Chemo Pal, Spencer. He stood outside, waving at Spencer who was inside a hospital room. Mahmood brought along some donuts too.
“That was amazing. I loved the donuts. I really didn't expect him to show up,” said Spencer.
Spencer's mom, Janalyn Blanchard, helped coordinate the drive-by donut drop-off. She said these moments don't just benefit Spencer, they ripple out to the whole family.
“Knowing there are people out there that are supportive and loving to us as we're going through this hard trial, this hard time, is just really helpful,” she said.
“I just think it's remarkable […] It's just really been a beautiful thing for our family.”
Often, Alfonso says the joy goes both ways.
“She [Lauren] brings so much light into my life,” said Alfonso. “Like who's helping who here,” she said.
These days Lauren is all about running her toy food cart business from home and Alfonso is right there with her helping her do it via video chat.
“She feeds me smoothies. She'll drink them. She'll share them with me,” said Alfonso.
“I cannot wait until it's in person.”
Alfonso said sometimes people want to give, but might not have the money to. Maybe they don't have a lot of time either. But she says being joyful is a choice, and at least that's something that's a little easier to pass on to others.
Mark Ferdig, CCA’s vice president, said at its core CCA is about bringing moments of joy to hospitalized kids going through serious treatment for diagnoses like cancer and mentors are taking initiative an inspiring way.
“It’s really amazing the extra effort people are going to, to make a difference and bring moments of joy to kids and their families that are feeling more isolated than ever because of the COVID crisis,” said Ferdig.
The Children’s Cancer Association is a nonprofit organization based in Portland that’s been around for 25 years.
This story came out of a personal experience. My significant other went to the hospital and delivered donuts as well as a socially-distant smile to the teen he was paired with through the Children's Cancer Association.
I wondered if other volunteers at CCA were also going the extra mile to stay connected to their kids - and it turns out, they were.