When Tim Clarke needed to come up with a community project for school, he didn’t have to look far for inspiration.
He remembered a kindness that was given to his mother, and he wanted to repeat it on a larger scale.
Clarke, a seventh-grader at Fairview Veterans Memorial Middle School in Chicopee, was asked, along with the entire REACH classes at his school and at nearby Bellamy Middle School, to come up with an idea for a community service project.
REACH is the school district’s program for accelerated students, and the teachers, Dorothy Stachowicz at Fairview and Irene Czerwiek at Bellamy, conduct the brainstorming session annually. The idea chosen as the best is then put into action by three students from each school.
And in pondering ideas, Clarke remembered when his mother, Sherri Langevin, began chemotherapy for her newly diagnosed breast cancer almost two years ago. During her initial visit to the Baystate Breast Center, she was cheered by a care package made by children.
“When I went for my chemo at the breast center, they gave me a care package from the Girl Scouts in East Longmeadow, and it had a thermometer, eye drops, Chapstick, a pill container — all the little startup supplies I needed. It was just stuffed,” Langevin said.
That gave Clarke an idea — to do the same for children at Baystate’s Pediatric Cancer Center. After he presented the idea to the teachers, they gave it a green light and assigned five students to work with Clarke on the project.
“We went to Baystate and interviewed some people,” Clarke said. “We couldn’t see any patients because of the privacy issue, but we talked to Michelle O’Neil, and she told us all about kids with cancer.”
O’Neill, Baystate’s child life specialist, told The Healthcare News that no group of young people has ever made as in-depth an attempt to learn about and give comfort to the children who are treated at the clinic.
“We’ll be making care packages with things like non-petroleum lip balm, teddy bears, and things to do so they don’t get bored while they’re at the hospital,” Clarke said of himself and his project partners: Blair Downie and Jessica Brown from Fairview and Maureen Riley, Scott Kibbie, and Collin Budz from Bellamy.
“The students met with me at the pediatric hematology-oncology clinic, and I told them about the different types of pediatric cancer, the symptoms, treatments, and what kids go through when they are diagnosed with cancer, and what their families go through,” O’Neill said.
“Then they went back to their schools to work on these care packages to give to us. They’re things that the patients might need when they’re going back and forth to and from the hospital — things like toiletry items, card games, crayons and coloring books, and other things to keep them busy.”
While deciding what to include in the care packages, the students also came up with a personal touch — they’re making comic books for the younger patients. Clarke is drawing the books, while Downie and Brown write the stories.
“After we make all the care packages, they’ll tell us what the reaction was,” Clarke said. O’Neill expects it to be overwhelmingly positive.
“This has a huge impact on the families because it shows them they are not alone in this struggle,” she said. “Having a child with cancer puts a drain on your whole life.”
For parents, it’s a drain that encompasses everything from sacrificing work to be at the hospital to arranging tutors when their children have to miss a lot of school. “Sometimes, having someone reach out like that lets families know someone is out there, thinking of them. It helps them get through it,” O’Neill said.
Langevin said she knows the feeling, recalling her own care package from the East Longmeadow Girl Scouts. “It made me feel good that somebody thought to put that together for me,” she said. “You’re so overwhelmed during that time, and you don’t know what you’re going to need. So it meant a lot, especially coming from the kids.”
The REACH project is a little different, O’Neill said.
“We’ve had Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops, and other groups, donate things to the hospital,” she noted, “but I’m not sure those things were on the same scale as this, as far as the planning, research, and insight these kids have put into their project.
“They’ve taken a lot of time learning what kids with cancer have to live with. All the donations have been meaningful, but this could have a much greater impact.”