Sarah Schneider's grandmother, Estelle Slon, is full of riddles, and she shares them in emails to sick children forced into isolation as they undergo treatment for cancer, blood disorders and other dire illnesses.
Fifteen-year-old Sarah in Maplewood, New Jersey, thought up the idea in a Zoom session with her school's social justice club after they were sent home for remote learning in the coronavirus crisis.
They decided to focus on kids undergoing prolonged medical treatment who are doing without their regular visitors and activities. Sarah's mom connected them to The Valerie Fund, which operates pediatric treatment centers free of charge in five hospitals, primarily in New Jersey.
"I wanted them to know they're not alone," Sarah said.
Sarah consulted with Valerie Fund staff to advise her growing team of pen pals on what to write, so as not to offend on religious grounds or offer undue hope. She attaches funny animal photos and memes.
Jill Chhowalla is grateful. Her 8-year-old daughter, Sophie, is among Sarah's recipients. The third grader was diagnosed in November with an advanced, rare form of cancer.
She has begun chemotherapy, which requires an overnight hospital stay every three weeks. She wasn't able to attend school before the coronavirus pandemic hit but had been participating through a "telepresence" robot which allowed her to learn alongside her classmates.
After lockdowns began, she lost that interaction. Aside from one parent at a time, she was no longer allowed to have friends and relatives keep her company during the long hours of treatment and hospital recuperation.
"It's been a tough change," Chhowalla said.
Enter a senior member of Sarah's team - Slon. And her riddles.
"I'm a grandma and I live in Florida. One of my grandkids lives all the way in Italy. Two live right near where you are in New Jersey," she wrote. "I can't visit them right now because of the virus but I think about them all the time and I'm thinking about you too!"
The answers to her two riddles above, by the way: A palm tree. And the letter C.
Sophie was tickled. She also loved a picture of a dog with a baby chick on his head.
Around the U.S., hospitals and volunteers are pitching in to ease the isolation of sick kids, many who are immune deficient.
"Prior to this pandemic, they'd have people with them to cheer them up," said Barry Kirschner, executive director of The Valerie Fund. "Hospitals are obviously very scary places for kids."
Since the virus struck, patients under 18 have been limited to one parent or caregiver, he said.
Around the country, hospitals and treatment programs like The Valerie Fund are rounding up volunteers to help ease the isolation.
In Washington, D.C., Children's National Hospital has been doing without its team that usually reads books to young patients. The kids are also missing regular visits from therapy dogs.
Allie Williams, the hospital's resource coordinator, put out the call for volunteers to record themselves reading at home. Their contributions are broadcast on the hospital's in-house TV station, including bedtime stories in the evenings.
And the best thing? When a pet wanders into the shot, Williams said.
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