NCCS Discovers Mentoring Program Gives Kids with Cancer a Fresh Outlook

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When Clarissa Schilstra was struggling through a second round of treatment for pediatric cancer, she received lots of encouragement from her family and doctors. But none of them really knew what it was like to be 13 and missing out on the school activities and social life her friends were enjoying.

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“A mentor provides a unique combination of supportive elements not replicated in any other relationship,” said Pam Gabris, coordinator of the NCCS’s survivorship program, Beyond the Cure.

When Clarissa Schilstra was struggling through a second round of treatment for pediatric cancer, she received lots of encouragement from her family and doctors. But none of them really knew what it was like to be 13 and missing out on the school activities and social life her friends were enjoying.

So when Clarissa, now 21, was offered a chance to provide that kind of support to another young girl going through the ups and downs of pediatric cancer treatment, she took it. Clarissa was recruited as a volunteer mentor by The National Children’s Cancer Society (NCCS), which is finding success pairing pediatric cancer patients with teens who have survived the same experiences with treatment and missed school days.

Clarissa said her 13-year-old mentee was battling similar emotional problems she faced as a teen cancer patient eight years ago. “I tried to help her stay positive and look forward to being done with all her treatment,” said Clarissa, who had leukemia at age two and again in middle school. “She was struggling because she’s transitioning in and out of school and I had some of those same issues.

Sam Fleming, an active 12-year-old who was diagnosed with neuroblastoma at age four and still gets quarterly treatment, has loved having NCCS mentors. “The first one was going to college at the time and was just an amazing guy,” said Sam’s mother, Linda. “They had a weekly phone date and he would gear the conversation to whatever Sam was interested in. He also got Sam excited about his future, about college and goals. It was great to watch them share their lives with each other.”

The mentors are typically college students and recipients of a Beyond the Cure Ambassador Scholarship from the NCCS. The NCCS asks them to take on several roles with the younger kids:

  • They facilitate growth by sharing personal experience, resources and networks
  • They provide telephone or internet based support
  • They challenge and encourage the mentees to move beyond their comfort zone
  • They create a safe learning environment to take risks
  • They focus on the mentee’s total development

The relationship was very positive for Sam, said his mom. He had become healthy enough to play sports by the time he began working with a mentor and that gave them a common hobby to discuss. “He would talk to Sam like he was just normal,” she said. Sam’s second mentor was a female soccer player, so they also bonded over sports as well as their shared experience with cancer.

The NCCS created the mentoring program based on research demonstrating the benefits of mentors for children with chronic illnesses. The organization has discovered that the relationship fills a need for kids with cancer that no parent, sibling, friend or social worker can fill.

“A mentor provides a unique combination of supportive elements not replicated in any other relationship,” said Pam Gabris, coordinator of the NCCS’s survivorship program, Beyond the Cure. “Studies haven’t been done specifically on children with cancer, but they have been done on children with other serious illnesses and have shown that mentoring helps them adjust better after treatment, increases their self-confidence and reduces their anxiety.”

Clarissa loved being a mentor so much that she is majoring in psychology at Duke University with plans to get a doctorate and ultimately work with young cancer patients. “When you’re going through treatment as a teenager, you’re very isolated and missing out on all the fun things that happen in middle school and high school,” she said. “This is very common for patients 13-18, and I’m really interested in ways to help them get through treatment and beyond.”

Linda said Sam is planning to become an NCCS mentor when he’s older, and already takes the opportunity to engage with younger children when he goes in for his quarterly treatments. “At the clinic he sees little bald boys running around, and he has hair, can play sports, but remembers what it was like. So he tries to play with them whenever he can.”

Gabris agrees the program benefits the mentors as much as the children they help. “Many of our survivors have a desire to help younger kids with cancer,” she said. “They not only serve as mentors, but also at summer camps for kids with cancer and in other child-focused volunteer roles. They are wonderful at giving back to children who are now experiencing what they went through when they were kids.”

Anyone interested in the scholarship program and mentoring can find information at http://www.thenccs.org.

About the NCCS
The mission of The National Children's Cancer Society is to provide emotional, financial and educational support to children with cancer, their families and survivors. To learn more about the NCCS and its support services, visit thenccs.org. The National Children’s Cancer Society is a 501C(3) organization that has provided more than $61 million in direct financial assistance to more than 36,000 children with cancer. To contact the NCCS, call (314) 241-1600. You can also visit the NCCS on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/thenccs.

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Lori Millner
The National Children's Cancer Society (NCCS)
since: 06/2010
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