March 4, 2012 at 9:40 AM ET
After two-year-old Morgan Zuch was diagnosed with leukemia, her mother confronted the unfairness of the situation every week when driving her daughter to the hospital. While all of the Zuchs’ neighborhood friends made the turn to the preschool, the one Morgan should have attended, Nancy Zuch kept driving straight.
“I couldn’t help wondering why we were on this path and not the other one,” she said.
During one such hospital visit, Zuch watched her daughter play with another cancer patient and realized that even though health concerns stopped young cancer patients from attending preschool, they could play with each other safely.
“That was the day I said, ‘something has to be done,’” she said.
From then on she had a new mission in life: to provide normalcy to other children who were facing the cancer nightmare.
In the fall of 2003, after years of painful treatments and with Morgan’s cancer in remission, Rod and Nancy Zuch founded The Morgan Center in Hicksville, NY. It is the only preschool in the country for children with cancer.
“We are making a difference in the lives of the children by giving back a part of their childhood that they otherwise would have lost due to the battle with cancer,” says Nancy Zuch, who teaches and is the center’s director.
Morgan was in kindergarten when the school was founded and did not attend, but her parents wanted other children to have an opportunity their daughter did not get. Now 13 and cured of cancer, Morgan volunteers at the Long Island school regularly.
For many parents and kids, starting preschool can be both exciting (“my child has friends!”) and frustrating (screeching toddlers clinging to mom at drop off).
For children with cancer, simple illnesses could be deadly, and chemotherapy suppresses their resistance to ordinary childhood viruses. So preschool, playdates and other social outings that most families take for granted are not an option.
It was that isolation that spurred the Zuchs to create the school.
The Center takes a number of precautions: neither supplies nor snacks are shared, hand wipes are used throughout the day and children with colds must stay at home.
Otherwise, the mornings of free play, circle time and arts and crafts are the only chance for normalcy in an otherwise grim routine of visiting hospitals and being isolated at home.
“These kids are going through more than what any child or adult should have to live through,” said Susan Hanlon, whose three-year-old daughter Amanda was diagnosed with leukemia at 14 months. “For them it’s a chance to laugh, be happy and have fun.”
While many moms make their best mom friends during the toddler and preschool years, parents of children with cancer don’t have the same opportunities. The school is a safe haven for them, as well.
“We had a normal life and that was gone for a year after Amanda was diagnosed,” Hanlon said. “At The Morgan Center all these parents are going through what you are.”
This fall the Zuchs plan on opening a second school for children with cancer on Long Island. They are also working on additional schools throughout the country. The program is entirely supported by fundraising and private donations.
“If you really think about it, it’s amazing that in all these years no one’s ever said, ‘why don’t we do something for these kids who are largely forgotten about?’” Hanlon said. “Nancy and her husband took this experience of hardship and created a miracle for others.”
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