The devastating effects of pediatric cancer go far beyond the damage caused by the tumor growing in the child’s body.

There’s the emotional and social cost to the child of missing school and time with peers. There’s the financial cost to the family of the treatment and missing time from work to take the child to treatment.

“Our community is unique in that there are no childhood cancer treatment facilities here,” said Andie McConnell, executive director of the Fairy Godmother Project, a local nonprofit that supports families dealing with pediatric cancer. “So that means all of our families have to drive and there are no local resources for them.”

And for children who survive pediatric cancer, there are lingering effects from the treatments and the emotional toll it takes to battle the disease.

“They may have difficulty concentrating and processing information,” McConnell said. “It can affect their memory, their control over executive functions [such as paying attention, organizing, staying focused, regulating emotions and self-monitoring].

“Then there’s the emotional effect of being behind in the classroom. And there’s an impact to siblings as well. Cancer affects the whole family,” she continued.

During the month of September, McConnell hopes to raise awareness of all these effects of pediatric cancer through the Heart of Gold campaign.

Gold is the color of pediatric cancer and the Fairy Godmother Project wants to flood the Fredericksburg area with gold ribbons as well as signs that businesses can post indicating their support of the campaign.

“It’s not a fundraiser but an awareness campaign,” McConnell said.

This is the fourth year the Fairy Godmother Project, along with partner organizations Strong 4 Dom and Slye Strong 6, has organized the Heart of Gold Campaign during September, which is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. But McConnell said it is the first year that the campaign has been so wide-reaching, thanks to the hard work of four high school-aged interns.

The four girls reached out to businesses in downtown Fredericksburg and got a total of 26 to agree to display signs supporting the campaign in September.

Elizabeth Butler, a 10th grader at Massaponax High School, said one of the girls’ goals was getting people their own age to participate in the campaign.

“We really wanted to ensure that people of all ages were aware of [the Fairy Godmother Project]. Massaponax is a huge football school, so we decided a football game would be the ultimate goal,” she said.

Though she thought she would “never in a million years” get the school to agree to a game, she set up a meeting with her high school assistant principal and ended up getting a football game dedicated to the cause on Sept. 14.

Butler and the Massaponax DECA club are also selling “Massaponax has a heart of gold” T–shirts for students and faculty to wear on the day of the game. All proceeds will go to the Fairy Godmother Project’s three programs—Stargazers, which helps families prepare for the end of their child’s life, Family Services, which helps families with day-to-day needs during treatment and the photography program, which provides free professional family portrait sessions.

Butler was also successful in getting eight other Spotsylvania schools to participate in a “wear gold” day on Sept. 14.

Butler and the other student interns are working on reaching out to Central Park businesses as well.

“I decided to take the mission of Fairy Godmother Project head-on, even knowing I have never been impacted by cancer,” Butler said. “As a student, I see my peers focusing heavily on themselves and never really expanding into the community surrounding them ... [now] I see the way my acquaintances are getting excited about the game because it started with someone their age trying to make it happen.

“This cause is so important to me because time is so valuable,” she continued. “A family member can be with their child one more moment because I was out campaigning and bringing awareness to others.”

This week, McConnell hosted two ribbon-making sessions. She said she’s had requests for “well over a thousand” gold ribbons from local organizations and businesses.

“So that’s a lot, but also, couldn’t it be more?” she said.

She said that right now, there are 12 families in Fairy Godmother Project’s Stargazers end-of-life program. The organization is supporting a further 13 families who are going through treatment with their child.

“Cancer is reality. This happens,” McConnell said. “The hope [with the Heart of Gold campaign] is that it prompts people to inquire and engage. Maybe somebody learns how to get help or how to recommend help to someone else.”

Adele Uphaus-Conner: 540/735-1973


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