Whether at our homes in the mountains of Deep Creek, MD, and Pinnacle Falls, NC, or on the beaches of the Atlantic Ocean, families in our Respite Housing Program enjoy cozy accommodations and an endless list of fun activities. However, a resource that many participants don’t anticipate is one they often find the most valuable; the opportunity to meet other families of a critically ill child.
The second week in June was a busy time in Ocean City, MD. All five units of our oceanfront condominium, the Children’s House by the Sea, were booked, and we welcomed the arrival of great beach weather. The town was bustling with excitement for the Annual Ocean City Air Show. With a bit of luck in coordination, we set up a special breakfast for the pilots of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels at the Children’s House by the Sea.
Families at the house got a sneak peak of the pilots practicing on Thursday before meeting them Friday morning. At the breakfast, these incredible airmen wowed the children with stories of flying in the Blue Angel planes and shared personal pictures they had from inside the cockpits. For children like Cameron Miller, who is in remission for Leukemia, it was the best part of the week. “He really wants to be in the Army when he grows up,” Cameron’s mother, Stephanie Day, said. “We were on the beach while they were practicing, and every time one would come over he would stop what he was doing and look up. This is amazing. It has given Cameron a chance to be open and happy, away from treatment and hospitals. Just to see a smile on his face every day has been really rewarding.” (Full article available here)
While the pilot’s visit was the highlight for some children, the time in Ocean City was special to families in another way. Liz Ferm, mother to Alex who has been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, said the week was special to her because she met other “momcologists.” Liz and her husband shared stories about Alex’s treatment with Stephanie and her husband. “Cameron is a year older than Alex, but he has been through a very similar protocol. Cameron had his port removed and has finished treatment. For Alex, who still has his port in, it really gave us all hope. We share a strange comradery. Until you walk the walk, you just don’t know.”
Another friendship that blossomed from that week was between Alex’s younger sister Ava and three-year-old Gabby Murga, who is diagnosed with brain cancer. Liz remembers, “Ava and Gabby interacted a lot that week. I remember an evening when they were both playing on boogie boards and our families were relaxing on the beach. I thought to myself, if anyone walked by and saw us, they would think we were just normal families, worried about nothing but enjoying the beach. It was truly a magical evening.”
For another family, it was a surprise encounter that made the week remarkable. Five-year-old Olivia Cooper was diagnosed with Wilm’s Tumor and just finished treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital. “It took us all a second to recognize one another, because the last time the girls had seen each other, neither had hair,” Olivia’s mother Marina remembers. The Coopers were happy to see Catherine Reid and her family at the house. Catherine and Olivia share the same oncologist, and the families had met each other in the waiting room at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
“It was nice to immediately connect with the Reids and everyone else on such a personal and intimate level. Catherine and Olivia started playing even at the first BBQ,” Marina noted. For the Coopers, the week at the beach was the first time since Olivia’s diagnosis that the family was able to go on a vacation. “My favorite part was the family portraits that Believe In Tomorrow arranged for all the families. For us, the portrait is almost a step into a new, normal phase of our life.”
Believe In Tomorrow’s programs are meant to help critically ill children look beyond an illness, but our services benefit the entire family. Participants remember fun activities like bumper boats, surf lessons, or fishing, but the real value of our programs is intangible. Our mission statement reads: We believe in keeping families together during a child’s medical crisis, and that the gentle cadence of normal family life has a powerful influence on the healing process. Along these lines, we also believe all families who enter our programs also become part of our family, the Believe In Tomorrow Family.