Twelve-year-old Ayelet Poupko of Englewood has never forgotten how the child-life specialists at Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital brought a measure of comfort and joy to her younger sister Chana Tova while the little girl was being treated for cancer.
She recalls that in those heartbreakingly difficult months before Chana’s death in June 2014, at 2½, activities such as “art projects and little push trolleys you could ride on” brought a smile to Chana and her two older sisters when they’d visit her at the Hackensack facility.
Earlier this year, Ayelet decided that in lieu of gifts for her bat mitzvah she would ask well-wishers to donate to Tackle Kids Cancer, which raises money for pediatric cancer research and patient-care programs as part of the Children’s Cancer Institute at Hackensack Meridian Health.
Ayelet, now a sixth grader at Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus, requested that the gifts be designated specifically for the Child Life Program as a way of memorializing Chana and bettering the lives of other children in treatment at the hospital.
“I didn’t want any stuff,” Ayelet said. “Those kids need it more.”
On April 12, Ayelet presented Tackle Kids Cancer with a check for $12,000. Days later, the grand total contributed in Ayelet’s honor by 100 people climbed to $13,250. Ayelet plans to write a thank-you note to each donor.
Ayelet did not think that her fund-raising appeal would raise so much money.
She had asked for a wish list from Tara Mullen, a senior child-life specialist at Sanzari Children’s Hospital.
Ms. Mullen has many strong memories of Chana.
“I had the pleasure of working with Chana during her treatment,” she said. “As a child life specialist, my focus is to help children cope with the many demands of treatment through play, expressive activities, and education. I had the honor of working with Chana and her sisters over the course of her treatment. Chana loved playing, especially with her sister, and spending time out of her room.
“Much of my time spent with Chana was walking her around the unit in a little red wagon, often accompanied by ‘Mickey baby’ and a couple of other stuffed friends.
“Chana was an incredible little girl, with the wisest blue eyes and playful and warm spirit. I feel so honored to have spent time with her and to have met her sisters and parents, all of who are still so invested in the care and treatment of children at the Children’s Cancer Institute at Hackensack Meridian Health Hackensack University Medical Center, as well as the child life department.”
So when she was asked to chose items in Chana’s memory, Ms. Mullen was glad to pick four expensive but very useful pieces of equipment: Pack ‘n Play portable crib/play yards, white-noise machines to help children sleep through the beeping of monitoring equipment, LEGO sets, and premium modeling clay.
“Ayelet set a goal of $3,600 to cover all this, but our community has been unbelievable,” said her mother, Dr. Shoshana Klein Poupko, a therapist at Family Service League in Montclair.
“We’ve talked about the possibility of Ayelet shopping for some of the items and bringing them to the hospital herself. Because my kids spent so much time there, they go back and visit often, and we take gifts at holiday time.”
Amy Glazer, the executive director of development for the children’s hospital and Tackle Kids Cancer, said the staff feels “incredibly grateful” for Ayelet’s contribution. The Child Life Program is not funded by insurance and depends largely on philanthropy, she explained.
“As a family-centric program, the Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital boasts a robust Child Life team to provide socio-emotional support to the patient and his or her siblings,” Ms. Glazer said.
“Our Child Life staff integrates play therapy, performance, music, and art into the treatment of children. Their work helps children to better understand their diagnosis, channel their emotions during their illness or injury, and provide an alternative method for them to communicate.
“Ayelet’s generosity and kindness will impact countless patients and their siblings.”
This is not the first time that the Poupko family’s contributions have made an impact at the hospital where Chana was treated.
In 2017, the family learned that the Alfred N. Sanzari Family Foundation was planning to renovate the Audrey Hepburn Children’s House and asked to participate by creating specially equipped rooms for Sabbath-observant families on the Hackensack University Medical Center campus.
The Poupkos raised $100,000 in just two weeks, primarily from members of Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah, where Rabbi Chaim Poupko then was associate rabbi and now is rabbi. The rooms have been in regular use since they were completed that March.
And last June, proceeds from the annual “Heartbeats” student production at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck were donated to Tackle Kids Cancer. Dr. Poupko, then a faculty adviser for the production, said New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning matched the $17,500 the girls had raised. That came to a total of $35,000 to benefit pediatric cancer research.
Ayelet, who turned 12 on February 24, and Elana, 10, welcomed a new baby sister, Rachel, two months ago. The whole family went to the children’s hospital to present Ayelet’s bat mitzvah gift money.
Last year, Ms. Mullen came to talk to Ayelet’s class at Ben Porat Yosef about the Child Life Program. Ayelet said that hearing about the work of child-life specialists helped raise awareness for the good it accomplishes. Judging by their generosity, adults in the local Jewish community clearly were touched as well.
“I think people understood the real need for the money because they saw an example of how it helped,” Ayelet said.