It starts with a Zoo and ends with childhood cancer being eradicated, but until then here’s how it happened. April 26, 1995. I was 25 years old and an assistant first grade teacher at a loving and warm Jewish Day School in Washington, D.C. Our class went on a fieldtrip that morning to the National Zoo and I escorted a group of students and a parent chaperone around the zoo. The chaperone was “Maya” and her daughter, “Alyssa,” was one of my young students. Maya was originally from my home town (Highland Park, IL) and we chatted about life outside of Chicago as the we roamed through the zoo.
Later that day I would go to a funeral for one of my graduate school professors who had died of breast cancer. The university chapel was filled to capacity and after a very touching speech by Jane Pauley, the rabbi (who was overseeing the service) said, “at the conclusion of this service can Beth Engelman please come see me.” This couldn’t be good. My mind flashed to the morning field trip ~ could we have left a student at the zoo? Did something terrible happen?
When the funeral was over I worked my way through the crowd to the rabbi. He told me, Susan (my school principal) had called and needed me to call her back ASAP. Shaken, I looked for a payphone. “Susan, is everything all right?” I whispered into the phone as the sound of my pounding heart pulsated in my ears. “Yes, it’s just that,” she paused, “your father called and he wants you to call him back.” She gave me his number ~ it was my older brother’s home phone number. Something was wrong. “And Beth,” Susan added right before I hung up, “After you speak with your father, please call me back.”
I called my dad. The news was bad. My mother had died. She was 52.
I flew back to Chicago that evening, sobbing through the flight. I lost my mom. What would I do without her? Over the next 7 days, I learned a lot about the grieving process. I learned that with friends, family and a strong foundation you can heal. Although I might never “get over” the death of my mom, I came to understand that this was G-d’s way and that my mom and her memory would live on through me and everyone else she loved. After a week of grieving, I returned to DC. I was happy to go back to school – to normalcy. My first graders cheered when I walked into the classroom. They had missed me as much as I had missed them.
On the second day I was back, Susan called me into her office. “Beth, I am going to tell you something” she said using the same straight-forward yet compassionate tone she had used only a week or so earlier. “Then I want you to go home.” Susan’s news was heartbreaking. “Alyssa” my bright, beautiful, full of life student had been diagnosed with cancer. I left that day shaken, grateful that Susan understood magnitude of the news. Our school was a small, tight-knit community and news of a sick child was devastating for everyone. I kept flashing back to the morning of April 26 when Alyssa’s mom and I were chatting at the zoo. How quickly our lives had changed in just over a week.
At the end of the school year, I was promoted to “teacher” status and given a 2nd grade classroom. Alyssa was going to be one of my students, which made her family very happy, as her transition to second grade would be much smoother and easier. When school resumed in the fall, Alyssa was undergoing an aggressive treatment. Her family was determined to help her maintain normalcy and stay current with her studies so I would visit her each week, going over the week’s lessons and filling her in on the funny things that were happening in classroom. In many ways, reaching out to Alyssa, helped me work through my own loss as I saw first hand her bravery as she fought against a disease that wanted to do her harm. By Mid-February, Alyssa’s prognosis was good, she returned to the classroom weakened, yet extremely strong and the kids all adored her cute short haircut and bright colored scarves. Alyssa was on her way to beating cancer.
Since that fateful day in April 1995, I have been deeply committed to helping children with cancer and other life-threatening diseases. My work has primarily involved raising funds for children’s hospitals and research centers. And Jenna and I have been blessed to have been camp counselors at Camp UKANDU in Oregon, which is a camp dedicated to giving kids with cancer their childhood back, if only for a week. So much of what we do at Mommy on a Shoestring is rooted in our experience at Camp UKANDU where we celebrated the wonders of life and the importance of just having fun!
So when St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital invited me to join a group of bloggers visiting their facility I was thrilled. I had heard about St Jude through their commercials and had always admired Marlo Thomas, so visiting St Jude seemed like a good idea. But what I didn’t realize until I visited was how St Jude’s is a Godsend for families whose children are gravely ill. It is one of the most remarkable, compassionate and inspirational places I have ever visited and couldn’t be prouder to help spread the word about this extraordinary place.
St Jude Children’s Research Hospital is best described as a health-care utopia. It is 100% committed to providing top-notch treatments for children with cancer and other life threatening diseases. But the treatment doesn’t stop with a protocol. St. Jude recognizes that childhood diseases are not just a health problem, but a family problem as well, so St Jude is committed to providing social, emotional, physical and and medical support for patients AND their families. The philosophy at St Jude is they will take care of everything so parents can be there for their children. That means St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital provides food, short term and long term lodging, travel, schooling, check-ups, medication and child life services at no cost to the patient’s family. That’s right, NO ONE PAYS A BILL at St. Jude. Not for food, not for travel or lodging or even expensive surgeries, protocols and drugs. It is all provided by St. Jude. Over the next few days and months, I will be telling you a lot more about St Jude as I highlight many of their programs and services as well as things we can do to help St. Jude continue to serve and thrive. Founder Danny Thomas said it best when he said, “No child should suffer in the dawn of his life.” With our help we can continue to make that vision a reality.
This Monday is the kick-off for St. Jude Thanks and Giving Campaign. The camapign is brilliant and a no-brainer at the same time. Here’s how it works: From now until the end of December, you can support the extraordinary work of St Jude by shopping. That’s right shopping! 60 businesses are donating a portion of their proceeds to St. Jude. That means every time you add a $1 at the register at Dick’s Sporting Goods that $1 goes to help eradicate childhood cancer and come to the aid of those families who are currently suffering. In addition, some stores have created special St Jude merchandise, where a portion of the proceeds from those items are ear-marked for St Jude! For example you can buy this adorable Plush from Target (did you know the Target dog was named “Bullseye”?) and a portion of the proceeds from that sale will go directly to sSt Jude!
Here’s a list (with live links) of some of the stores that are offering specialty products:
- Brooks Brothers
- Pottery Barn
- PB Teen
- West Elm
- Kay Jewelers and Jared Galleria of Jewelers – (The products only available in store but please go and check them out Kay Jewelers has been incredibly generous to St Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and you’ll see why in the coming weeks)
- Kmart (The #1 corporate partner for 2013, THANK YOU KMART!)
- Target (Stay tuned for my “Target House” blog which will blow you away and make you want to buy things at Target everyday!)
Finally I want to end on a furry note and an interesting postscript:
As I mentioned, the all the programs and services at St Jude are phenomenal, especially their “Child Life Programs.” Throughout the entire hospital you see child-center art work, poems and murals that express the feelings and realities of the kids. They also offer special programs such as Doggie Tuesday which is when service dogs come to the hospital and play with the children. This is both a calming and soothing activity as well as a chance for kids to interact with pets, as many of them miss their pets from home. It’s a small thing but something that is really special and can really make a big difference in someone’s day. Please make a difference in someone’s day, Donate to St Jude or visit one of the many retailers that support the Thanks and Giving campaign.
Finally, As years went by, I lost touch with “Alyssa” and her mom “Maya.” But was kept up to date by other teacher friends from DC. I am happy to report that Alyssa beat cancer and is about 27 or 28. I did run into “Maya” a few years ago, after I had flown in from SF to visit my beloved 89 year old grandfather was on life support in the ICU at Highland Park Hospital in Highland Park, IL. I was sitting at his bedside, waiting and praying with my siblings and cousins as we knew the life support machine would soon be turned off. I glanced at the door which was open and could see someone walking through the hallway. It was Maya. Her father has suffered a stroke and was in the hospital room next to my grandfather. We hugged and exchanged updates before I was called back into the room to say goodbye to Grandpa, but I was struck by how our paths crossed at some of life’s worst times. A few years later, “Maya” passed away from cancer. But I find solace in knowing her spirit and memory will live on through the lives of her daughter, Alyssa and those that she loved.