September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and you might notice quite a few people in our area sporting bright gold ribbons in support. The statistics can seem grim. According to the American Cancer Society, 43 children are diagnosed with cancer each day, nearly 16,000 a year, with Leukemia and various types of brain tumors leading the list. New drugs for childhood cancer are rarely approved, and this group of cancers can be especially invasive and swift. Additionally, childhood cancers are underfunded, with the highest proportion at 4 percent from the National Cancer Institute; so independent groups step in to target these gaps. Most of them spend between 80 - 100 percent of their profits to fund research and outreach support for families in need.
Leading the Charge
Probably the best known organization in Fredericksburg is the Fairy Godmother Project. Like many of the groups in our area, Fairy Godmother Project seeks to support families as they travel north and south along the I-95 corridor to pursue treatments in city hubs. Andie McConnell, executive director, explains, "There are no pediatric cancer treatment facilities here in Fredericksburg, which creates added expense and disruption to the schedules of every member in a family. Our philosophy is if we take good care of the family, the parents in particular, they can take better care of their sick child." Volunteers play a large part in Fairy Godmother Project's success, allowing them to provide everything from meal preparation, to house and lawn care, to financial support when needed.
Another organization with wide reach in Fredericksburg is the Grace Oughton Foundation. After Grace's death in 2007, the Oughtons used the funds collected by Alec Oughton's colleagues to shift the foundation's focus toward the service of others. Today, they sponsor Sissy's Dance, Race for Grace, Brock's Bartender's Ball, and other local family-oriented fundraising events around Fredericksburg. Additionally, they are the beneficiary of a local street art event, Via Colori. Grace Oughton Foundation takes great pride in its most recent offering — a mobile lab, which holds bone marrow donor drives and travels to children in need to provide CBC services locally, reducing travel for families.
Engaged and Ready
Not all organizations in our area have been in service for as long as Fairy Godmother and Grace Oughton Foundation. Two active, but lesser known organizations in Fredericksburg are the Owen Lea Foundation, which provides direct support to families of children diagnosed with Neuroblastoma, and Strong for Dom, which raises funds for specific clinical trials at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Margaret Beltran of Strong for Dom says, "Childhood cancer is hard on everyone in the family. In general, people don't know a lot about childhood cancers, and they certainly don't realize that such a small percent of funding goes toward its research." In addition to raising money for clinical trials, Strong for Dom started the Super Fun Day program because, as Beltran explains, "We realized kids can be treated for cancer with medicine, but there's a whole other end of it that medicine can't treat. We try to provide them with a day of fun with their families." This year they were able to provide two families with season passes to an amusement park.
The Owen Lea Foundation has made its mission that of alleviating daily stresses from families of children diagnosed with Neuroblastoma. Director Karen Lea elaborates their mission, "We focus on what the families need to make the treatments happen. Most of these families spend thousands of dollars on gas alone to get to treatment centers. This is especially true of Neuroblastoma, which requires treatments in other cities." Lea emphasizes that every penny sent to help needy families is spent toward that end: "It's 100 percent volunteer run."
Reinforcements from Afar
Even organizations outside Fredericksburg extend their reach into our area. According to its website, Connor's Heroes, a Richmond, Virginia-based organization, has a comprehensive mission to "provide support and care to ease the burdens brought on by extended hospital stays, to help families connect with others who share a similar journey, to raise funds for cancer research and to provide bereavement support." Families in the Fredericksburg and Caroline areas have been recipients of their generosity, especially when traveling to Richmond for treatments.
In Burke, Virginia, Still Brave actively assists families outside its immediate vicinity. Director Tom Mitchell, better known as Tattoo Tom, emphasizes Still Brave's "renegade" mission to support families in non-medical ways. When his daughter, Shayla, was battling cancer, he says, "I asked myself why didn't someone do something, and then I realized I was someone." Still Brave is committed to helping children with cancer and their families, "so that while they are fighting the toughest war of their lives, we will fight their lesser battles so they don't have to."
The qualities shared by each of these organizations is their dedication to honoring the memory of their own children's experiences, to supporting families facing the ravages of childhood cancer and to assure them they are never alone. Each has a presence online and provides further links and resources where families may find assistance. In essence, each organization has had intimate dealings with cancer, and performing life-affirming acts in the face of the disease forms their own children's legacies. Margaret Beltran captures it here, "Losing a child to cancer didn't make sense. I needed to do something to keep Dom's memory alive and to have something positive come of all of it. My hope is that we make him proud through our efforts."
A.E. Bayne is a writer, visual artist, and educator who lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia. She has been a frequent contributor to Front Porch Magazine and is an editor at the Fredericksburg Literary Review.
Want to help? Here’s how:
Fairy Godmother Project
Focus: Childhood cancers
Need: Donations and volunteers to accomplish emotional and financial support through many programs
Grace Oughton Foundation
Focus: Childhood cancers
Need: Donations and volunteers to offer physical, monetary and medical resource support
Owen Lea Foundation
Need: Donations and volunteers to continue to support families who have to travel for treatment
Strong for Dom
Focus: Clinical trials at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
Need: Financial donations to fund trials testing new, less toxic medications for children with cancer
Focus: Childhood cancers
Need: Financial donations and volunteers to provide financial, emotional and physical support
Focus: Childhood Cancers
Need: Volunteers and funding to support research, to help families to juggle time and to support children as they face invasive procedures