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NEW YORK—“I stand before you on one leg, more aware of every moment of life…Failure is not an option,” said 20-year-old Anna Carissa Rahm, diagnosed at 17 with a rare bone cancer called osteosarcoma that led to surgery which removed her right leg, at the New York Marriot Hotel earlier this month.
More than 1,000 people rose on two legs to give the young survivor a standing ovation.
Such is the enthusiasm and spirit of volunteerism aroused by Chai Lifeline, the Jewish community’s most well-known cancer support organization.
“We are a small charity, raising perhaps $20 million a year,” Chai Lifeline Executive Director Abraham “Avi” Cohen told JNS.org. “Yet, because of our more than 5,000 volunteers, we can do a $100 million worth of work.”
Chai Lifeline’s June 5 gathering was filled with the warmth and caring of a huge family reunion. The event celebrated and supported the work of ChaiLifeline and its summer program, Camp Simcha. Drew Niv, CEO of FXCM, was honored as “Man of the Year”; Uzi Elliahou received the Legacy of Hope Award; Inbar and Yoram Bibring were given the Triumph of Hope Honor Award; and Chip Krotee received the Children’s Champion Award.
Founded in 1987, Chai Lifeline 25 later serves hundreds of children suffering from cancer, hematological illnesses and other chronic conditions in America and through its affiliated programs in Canada, England, Israel, and Belgium. Supporters who joined forces at the 2012 Awards Dinner for Corporate Sponsors included families and individuals who have been reinvigorated by the happiness and rejuvenated by the hope that blossoms in Chai Lifeline’s Camp Simcha summer program, and patrons and sponsors from major corporations in the financial and fashion worlds.
At Camp Simcha, the challenge is to create as close to a “normal” camping experience as possible for children whose summer expeditions might otherwise be limited to hospital hallways. Skilled medical professionals provide specialized care for children who require active treatment, including transportation to local hospitals for life-saving care.
Camp Simcha “turns sick kids into campers.” The 125-acre campus in upstate New York helps children with cancer enjoy traditional summer camp activities. Submersible wheelchairs assure that every child can go “swimming.” Bunks have ramps able to accommodate wheelchairs, and pontoon boats are equipped to enable wheelchair-dependent children to enjoy the water.
“The program is non-stop,” Avi Cohen told JNS.org, “using fun and love as tools in the fight against illness and isolation.”
Oncologist Dr. Peter Steinherz heads a team of Chai Lifeline medical professionals aided by social workers and physical therapists. Inbar Bibring, an honoree and the mother of cancer patient Roni, 19, said Steinherz “is a mensch unlike any other I’ve met on this difficult journey.”
Roni, a Chai Lifeline “warrior,” was diagnosed in Israel. After a failed first round of therapy, Inbar and Yoram, her parents, decided to bring their critically ill daughter to New York for further treatment. They were introduced to Steinherz, who was visiting Israel. Yoram told JNS.org that Steinherz invited the family to fly from Tel Aviv to New York with him and stayed with the family throughout the flight. After Roni was admitted to the hospital Steinherz “would come to visit us daily,” Inbar told JNS.org.
While Sari Ort was on vacation in Israel with her family, the unusual pain the then-10 year old suffered led to her diagnosis: cancer. Her parents, already supporters of Chai Life Line, now turned to the program to aid their daughter. At the New York Marriot, the charming 12-year-old spoke about ChaiLifeline.
“Chai Life line volunteers ‘get it’…It makes me feel happy to know I’m not the only one [who suffers from cancer],” Sari said.
Throughout the year, ChaiLifeline advocates for children and their families, providing guidance and assistance in many areas including transportation for treatments, and sometimes—perhaps a dose of Jewish penicillin—providing hot meals and chicken soup to families battling childhood illnesses. “ChaiLine” telephone support groups provide support via conference calls facilitated by professional therapists. Children and parents are given services essential to help them manage the impact of illness. The Homebound Educational Learning Program helps children keep their academic work current.
Through its adjunct programs, including “Big Brothers & Sisters,” each child receives regular visits at home or in hospital. Separate “bigs” may be assigned to help other children in a family, helping siblings cope with the illness of a brother or sister, ensuring that every child in the family feels special.
ChaiLifeline works to “engender hope and optimism…educate and involve… and provide unparalleled support.” There are no fees or charges for any of the services provided by the organization. Should a child die, ChaiLifeline continues its support of families through the Healing Hearts Bereavement Program.
While hundreds of children are able to participate in the Camp Simcha summer programs, hundreds also remain on the waiting list. To meet these needs, Chai Lifeline plans to build an additional 20 “bunks” at Camp Simcha. The special requirements needed to provide a suitable summer “home” for cancer-stricken campers brings the cost of each bunk to approximately $250,000. One goal of the 2012 Gala was to raise 5 million dollars to complete the construction of these facilities; final fundraising totals from the New York event were not yet available as of this report.