When Sharon Wozny realized that kids with cancer were missing out on important learning opportunities – a result of cancer-related school absences – she went to work on a solution.
The Mesa resident and program manager for Children’s Cancer Network has a special eye for education – she spent 30 years teaching elementary school for Mesa Public Schools.
It wasn’t long before Wozny, in partnership with CCN’s executive director, Patti Luttrell, created and launched a summer STEM camp for kids fighting cancer.
“Kids with cancer miss out on so much,” said Wozny, who started volunteering for CCN in 2013 and joined the staff in 2016. “They’re stuck in the hospital or stuck at home, too sick from the cancer and chemo to go to school, and often are isolated from friends. We wanted to give them back a piece of their childhood.”
CCN’s day camp, which launched in 2018, is offered at no cost to kids with cancer and their siblings. It focuses primarily on immersive, hands-on STEM projects and experiences to fill the gaps for kids who missed out on such learning at school.
“The camp has been a huge hit among our families,” said Luttrell. “In addition to doing really cool projects and learning new and interesting things, it’s a chance for them to spend time with other kids and forget about cancer for just a little while.”
Wozny began planning this year’s summer camp in early 2020, but she shifted gears when it became clear that COVID-19 wasn’t going anywhere.
Since children with cancer are at high risk for serious illness, she began brainstorming virtual options that would provide the same level of enjoyment, engagement and learning – without compromising kids’ safety.
“Kids are pretty Zoomed out right now, so we worked hard to come up with lessons and projects that were truly fun and engaging,” said Wozny.
The Arizona Coyotes sponsored this year’s virtual camp the week of June 15. CCN delivered boxes of materials to campers’ families in advance, providing all needed items – like nuts, bolts, transistors and aluminum foil – for the week’s learning activities.
Gilbert mom Laura Groth sent her young daughters to CCN’s in-person camp last summer. Her 12-year-old daughter Lizzie is in remission from acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
She and her younger sisters – 10-year old Lily, 9-year-old Leilani and 7-year-old Lexi – participated in the camp again this year, this time via Zoom.
“Last year’s camp was such an amazing experience,” said Groth. “I cried with gratitude for the opportunity it provided my girls. I wasn’t sure how a virtual camp would turn out, but Sharon kept them engaged from the moment they logged on to the moment camp ended. She also provided cool ideas to extend the learning throughout the afternoon.”
The camp’s theme – “Imagine That” – was threaded throughout the week’s projects and activities. Tuesday was all about “Imagine with STEM” and included a tie-dye experiment using Sharpie markers, self-portraits using nuts and bolts, and an afternoon robot-building project.
Friday’s “Imagine Just Me” gave campers a chance to study strawberry DNA and get creative by decorating large wood initials.
Kids across Arizona joined the camp, building pool noodle monsters, making aluminum foil art, and completing a project with local artist and guest instructor, Christy Puetz.
“The camp was so much cooler than any other virtual experience my girls have taken part in,” added Groth. “We are just so thankful. CCN has touched our lives in so many ways.”
CCN continues to modify programs and create new options for delivering services and programs amid the pandemic.
The Chandler-based nonprofit organization serves families across Arizona, providing gas and grocery gift cards, hospital admission kits to help new families navigate the road ahead and adopt-a-family programs for back-to-school and the holidays.
The organization also hosts activities to boost self-confidence in young cancer fighters, programs to help siblings cope with cancer, and provide a multitude of other services and resources.
“Our focus right now is adapting our programs for the world we’re living in today,” said Luttrell.
For more information, to make a donation, or to inquire about volunteer opportunities, visit childrenscancernetwork.org.