Friends of Kids with Cancer wants to ensure the area’s young cancer patients don’t miss out on their childhood.
Founded in 1992 by a group of local parents with children battling cancer, the organization offers recreational, educational and emotional support to kids with cancer and blood-related diseases during the long hours of chemotherapy, radiation, isolation and recovery. “We provide upbeat activities that make the kids want to come to treatment,” says executive director Judy Ciapciak. “It’s about keeping their lives normal because they lose a huge part of their childhood to the disease.” And because the diagnosis affects the whole family, the nonprofit also offers help to siblings and parents.
The charity has more than 300 volunteers annually supporting 1,000 children and their families through programs and fundraising events. Recreational programs aim to boost family’s spirits with fun diversions—from games and toys for play time at the hospital to gift cards and tickets to Cardinals games and The Muny, among others. Its educational programs provide five $1,000 scholarships each year to graduating seniors for college, or students returning to classes after their schooling was interrupted by treatment. “Kids in treatment miss so much school, so we also do tutoring, educational games and help them with their homework,” Ciapciak notes. Emotional-support programs allow patients and their siblings to express themselves through art and play therapy. In addition, the organization offers individual and family counseling. “Dealing with kids’ emotions is not a cure, but it’s half the battle,” Ciapciak says. She adds that each program is designed to put a smile on patients’ faces, build their self-esteem, and— during the toughest times of their cancer battle—give them the will to live.
The programs are supported by a $1 million budget from fundraising events, including an annual run/walk in April, a golf tournament each May and its signature children’s fashion show—where the cancer patients serve as the models. This year, Friends will celebrate its 20th anniversary Fashion Show and Boutique on Nov. 8 at The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis.
Beyond program offerings during treatment, Friends stands by patients even as they go into remission. The organization also maintains support to parents of children who pass away. “We feel we are giving them memories with their children that they hold onto forever,” Ciapciak says. The charity also bonds families fighting cancer. “They can share their fears, their happiness and their tears and from that, form lasting friendships.”
Ciapciak recalls how Friends has brightened the last days of many patients throughout the years. One 21-year-old patient was thrilled when her wish of a casino night was fulfilled by Friends and Lumiere Place. She and her mother were picked up in a limousine and taken to the casino for $300 of gambling, $300 of shopping and a free dinner and overnight hotel stay. “Her mother said when she got out of that limo, it was the last time she saw her smile. She died a week later,” Ciapciak says. “It feels good because you know you made the last part of their life happy.”
She adds that many families say they couldn’t have made it without Friends. “That makes it all worthwhile.”
Volunteer: Cindy Woods
Every day that Cindy Woods volunteers at Friends of Kids with Cancer is a tribute to her daughter, who passed away at 15 from Ewing’s sarcoma. “When my husband and I are helping at the charity’s events, we feel our daughter is also there,” she says.
Mary Beth Woods was diagnosed with cancer in 1992. That year, Friends was founded for young people like Mary Beth, whose last wish was for other kids with cancer to receive help. “Mary Beth told us, I wish things could be different for the other children,” Woods remembers. “We feel the little that we do through the charity is making her wish come true.”
While Mary Beth was in cancer treatment, Friends also fulfilled her wish for a Pekingese puppy. “She was so crazy about that puppy,” Woods recalls. Since then, Woods has been helping the charity fulfill the wishes of other local kids with cancer. “I do anything I can to make them smile,” she says. That includes delivering donated gift cards and handling the preparations for fundraising events such as Winter Wonderland and Hats On Day. Winter Wonderland will feature music, food and children’s activities on Dec. 2 at America’s Incredible Pizza Company. Hats On Day, where children donate $1 to wear a hat to school for a day, was supported by 200 schools that raised $42,000 last year. “Everyone at the schools is so generous and caring and loving,” Woods says. The event also promotes cancer awareness among participating students, who sometimes struggle to understand why their classmates enduring the diseases have lost their hair or have missed extended periods of school.
Woods says the charity’s members and volunteers have become “like a family” and she is thankful to be part of carrying on Friends’ mission to brighten the days of children who are fighting cancer. “They love each and every one of the children.”