Style Cover Stories

Their Day: Friends of Kids With Cancer

Friends of Kids with Cancer is in the business of joy; and often, it comes from the simplest places—a toy closet, say, or a pot of bright paint. The nonprofit was started in 1992 with a mission of enriching the daily lives of children who are either undergoing treatment for cancer, or who have survived it. Through its educational, recreational and emotional programs at St. John’s Mercy, SSM Health Cardinal Glennon and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, it addresses needs otherwise unmet by medical treatments. “The doctors attend to the patients’ medical needs. But we address the emotional well-being of the whole family,” says executive director Judy Ciapciak.

ss-cover-friends-of-kids-with-cancer-9Conceived and founded by ‘Dr. Bob’ Bergamini, developmental specialist Jill Turec and parents Molly Henry and Suzie Snowden, it is an approach that aims to serve the whole child. The educational program provides tutoring, testing and scholarships for survivors and patients, while the emotional program uses art and play therapies, as well as psychological services, to address feelings and empower children. The recreational component provides uplifting relief from the daily challenges of fighting their disease. “It began with a simple question,” Turec says. “How do we better the lives of children and families who are suffering in this way?” Realizing that children in treatment are robbed of so many special moments, the group set out to find ways to build self-esteem and improve quality of life. “Our aim is to help kids with cancer be kids,” Ciapciak explains.

The nonprofit’s major fundraiser is its annual Fashion Show, which takes place this year on Nov. 10. All models are children in treatment. “This is such an important event,” explains Ciapciak. “When they are sick and pale and don’t feel pretty, the show lifts the gray sadness from their faces and replaces it with beauty. It might as well be the Academy Awards.”

Carolyn Gertsch can speak to the immeasurable value of the event because her daughter Cora, 15, has been both a model and a speaker at the event. “I weep to see it,” she says. “I know what they are going through … how hard it is for some of these children to get up on that catwalk.” Cora has been free of optic glioma for the past three years but took part in the show during the worst of times. “It’s not easy to find joy when you’re in the midst of an illness like this, but the children pick out their own clothes and have their hair and makeup done. They are on top of the world.”

Gertsch says the organization remains a central part of their family’s life. Not only does Cora receive the ongoing support of an art therapist, but Gertsch attends Friends of Kids moms’ events, where she has formed close friendships with other mothers of sick or deceased children. “We know what each other is going through,” she says.

There will be 30 models at this year’s show, which takes place both during the day, and again at night, at The Ritz-Carlton. “The show is a way to celebrate how beautiful these children are—on the inside and on the outside,” Gertsch says. “It’s a wonderful thing.”

Photo: Bill Barrett

Friends of Kids with Cancer host its 24th annual Fashion Show and Boutique Nov. 10. Pictured on the cover: (Front) Will Bartold and Jacob Horton; (rear) Livvie Epstein, Elizabeth Hill, Ala Blaszczyk. For information and tickets, call 314.275.7440 or visit friendsofkids.com.
Cover design by Allie Bronsky | Cover photo by Bill Barrett

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