A Publication of WTVP

Perhaps more deeply than any loved one, a child can identify with a parent’s suffering following a cancer diagnosis. That’s why former Kids Konnected teens are providing friendship and support for children whose parents have cancer.

A cancer diagnosis affects every member of a family, but children at the tender ages of five, eight or 10 who have never experienced the suffering or loss of a parent often feel isolated and helpless. Unlike most adults, children withdraw from sharing their feelings with family members, worried that their concerns may cause their parent additional stress. Even when voiced, a child’s feelings may be taken for granted, overlooked or simply misconstrued by those who tell him or her: “Don’t worry. Everything will be okay.”

When a parent has lost a battle with cancer, a child’s life is drastically altered. Suddenly, Mom isn’t there to wash and fold the laundry, make the school lunches or kiss a child goodnight. She isn’t waiting for a child after a tiresome school day with an encouraging smile or a word of praise.

In an effort to comfort and reassure children and teens whose parents have received a diagnosis for any type of cancer, a support program for children ages five to 18 known as Kids Konnected was developed in 1997. The program is a not-for-profit organization sponsored by a grant from the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation-Peoria Memorial Affiliate that allows kids to glean strength from one another following a parent’s diagnosis.

Gathering Strength

In order to answer questions and help children understand the emotions they may experience during a parent’s cancer treatment, Kids Konnected of Peoria provides support group meetings for children at Peoria’s Hult Health Education Center. At these meetings, held on the first and third Mondays of each month from 7 to 8pm, children can break up into age-appropriate groups and share their concerns.

“At Kids Konnected, our philosophy is: come as you are,” says Sharon Mindock, an adult facilitator for the program. “That’s the beauty of being in a group with people who have walked in your shoes.”

One Step Further

This year, Kids Konnected is taking its outreach one step further by providing teen mentors for new Kids Konnected members. The teen mentor program is new to Kids Konnected and began in January of this year. “We have three mentors who are teenage girls,” says Mindock. “Our mentors are valuable because they help younger children form relationships within the group that would otherwise taker longer to build.”

Kids Konnected program coordinator Judy Oakford also recognizes the benefits of the mentoring program: “The program really fulfills an unmet need for several of the children involved with Kids Konnected,” she says. “Kids can come together, share memories and receive encouragement when they have no one else.”

According to Chris Owens, who oversees the Susan G. Komen grant for Kids Konnected, providing opportunities for kids to share their story with mentors who are close to their age eases a new member’s transition into the Kids Konnected program. “Having teens mentor, rather than older facilitators, eases the comfort level for kids who may feel they cannot share their feelings with someone who is much older,” says Owens.

Program meetings, such as the one that took place on March 17th at the Hult Health Education Center, encompass a range of activities. The evening featured a massage therapist who instructed the children how to massage the hands and feet of a parent with cancer.

Katie Unes, who lost her mother to cancer, recently became involved with the teen mentoring program. She claims that simply attending the meetings and being there for the kids is a rewarding experience in itself. “I just love going, helping the kids, and asking them how they are doing,” she says. “At our last meeting, we showed the kids how to cook healthy meals for their parents. Sometimes we play board games. I used to be in Kids Konnected, and I went back because I felt the kids could really use my help.”

Sixteen-year-old Gilian Hodin attended Kids Konnected for six years after her father was diagnosed with leukemia. Now that her father is on the road to recovery, she is able to use her experiences to help others as a mentor. “I knew that I could help these kids because I’ve gone through exactly what they are going through now,” she says.

Sunlight and Shadows

Kids Konnected meetings evoke a kaleidoscope of emotions from children as they share their memories, pleasant and unpleasant. Teen advisors try to focus on having children reminisce about the positive aspects of their lives, such as a parent’s recovery. In this way, mentoring serves as a reminder to Kids Konnected members that behind every shadow is a little sunlight. “It’s great for other kids to hear good reports,” says Sharon Mindock. “It serves as a reminder that cancer is not always a fatal disease. People do get better and survive.”

Hodin believes that it is just as important for kids to focus on the parent’s recovery as it is to understand the illness. “Sometimes when we break up into groups, we do demonstrations with pictures,” she says. “My demonstration included three drawings. The first showed my dad sick in bed, the second showed how he was getting stronger and the last showed him recovering.”

Emphasizing the big picture can also benefit kids who have lost parents to cancer. No matter what the outcome, kids can focus on how their experiences have helped to create positive changes in themselves. “I had one girl in my group who lost her mom,” says Hodin. “She drew pictures of when her mom was sick, but the pictures of her experiences led up to a picture of a heart with ‘Kids Konnected’ written inside it. It really showed how the program has helped her.”

Anchor to Hope

Whatever the emotion, a teen mentor serves as a child’s anchor to hope and also acts as an intellectual beacon shedding light on the dark path from a parent’s diagnosis to his or her recovery. Teen mentors can provide new members with basic knowledge about cancer that addresses children’s concerns. “Kids—especially those who are very young—have so many questions,” says Mindock. “‘What does cancer look like?’ ‘Is it contagious?’ ‘Why does Mommy look so different?’ It’s important to educate children. Knowledge alleviates fear and gives kids understanding.”

Gilian Hodin also understands the importance of educating children and bringing emotions out into the open. “I’ll ask kids where their parents are being treated, the type of cancer their parents have, and how their parents are doing,” says Hodin. “If they say their parents are doing fine, I’ll say, ‘okay, how are you doing?’ Sometimes, I’ll have kids draw pictures of what they think cancer looks like, and they’ll draw a horrible black disease.”

Precious Connections

One of the most influential principles children learn from teen mentors is that by helping others they can help themselves. Along this line, teens teach children ways to help their parent and make his or her daily life easier. “When my mom had cancer, she used to be very tired,” says Unes, “so I tell the kids how they can help their parent by cooking and cleaning and doing chores.” These acts of service work to help the parent and child reestablish a connection too precious for words.

Not only do kids learn how to make life easier for their parents, they also learn tips on how to adjust to the way their own lives have been altered. Kids are taught to rely on community outreach and extended family members to take them to school, prepare dinner and help with daily activities. “I can recall four girls who came to Kids Konnected,” says Mindock. “The girls were doing very well, but after their mother passed away, there was a great digression in their behavior. Their loved ones were so helpful. People from their church offered to grocery shop, help out with child care and take care of the meals. I could tell it was a great support to them.”

Teens welcome new group members to the program with a Kids Konnected teddy bear. Hult Health Education Center meetings are free of charge. The Center is located at 5215 North Knoxville on the Peoria campus of Proctor Hospital, and ample free parking is available. Those interested may call the Center at 692-6650, Monday through Friday from 8am to 4:30pm, or email the Center at [email protected].

What Kids Are Saying

Kids can’t say enough good things about the Kids Konnected teen mentoring program and the positive impact it has made. According to Mindock, children have commented that they feel safe and a part of the group and are not uncomfortable discussing their issues with teen mentors. So passionate are the children about the teen mentoring program that several children who “graduate” often express a desire to return and become teen mentors themselves. “We facilitators see this as something very positive,” says Mindock. “These teens now want to help others in the program because it was such an encouragement for them.”

Perhaps more than any words of affirmation, a child’s heartfelt smile—the impetus of Kids Konnected—speaks volumes. TPW