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Cancer kids could soon have school of their own

TAMPA — Those six months of homework assignments, bus rides and sweaty PE classes were some of the best of Connor Hernandez's life.

He won an art class award and picked up a new nickname, Yoda, from his third-grade classmates. He played hockey in the afternoon and ate from a lunch box.

Then the cancer came back.

"It was difficult for all of us — the teachers, the other students," said Connor's mother, Tracey Hernandez. "We had to go to school and explain why he had to leave."

How wonderful it would have been to keep Connor in school longer, to have a sterile place to accommodate him while his weak immune system reeled from leukemia treatments.

That's the idea behind a school for pediatric cancer patients being planned by the 1Voice Foundation, a local nonprofit. A $5 million capital campaign kicked off Thursday at one of the potential locations, the Home Theater Gallery at 3300 S Dale Mabry Highway.

Supporters say the school would be the first of its kind. Many hospitals have classrooms for pediatric patients, but there is no independent facility specifically for kids with cancer.

"We want to give them a school where it's a safe environment, where they can be around other children with the same conditions they have," said 1Voice Foundation director Mary Ann Massolio, whose son, Jay, died of cancer when he was 9.

"People think children don't want to go to school, but the truth of the matter is, they do," she said.

Connor, now 11 and homebound with hospice care, has never been verbal. So when his mom mentions his brief stint at Lopez Elementary three years ago, Connor smiles and drums his chest, "which means, 'I loved it,' " Hernandez said.

"Oh, he was just so happy."

• • •

Many of the hundreds of sick children in the Tampa Bay area go to regular public schools between treatments. When they are forced to stay home, they receive instruction from county-employed teachers of the homebound or through Florida's virtual school.

The new school would be a middle ground, giving kids a sanitary place to learn with peers until they're well enough to go back to regular classrooms.

The foundation asked the Hills­borough County School District to staff 1Voice Academy with homebound teachers and allow kids to be dual-enrolled there and at their assigned public schools. School district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said discussions are still in the early stages.

Massolio said she hopes to include children from other counties, too, and possibly add more campuses in the future.

She said consolidating many kids' homebound sessions at one location would let parents maintain their day jobs, ensuring access to health insurance. Plus, it would give parents a place to gather and commiserate about their struggles.

"The ramifications on the family are endless," Massolio said.

She expects that at least one to two dozen children would attend on any given day, depending on their chemotherapy schedules.

1Voice members favor the Home Theater Gallery because of its state-of-the-art ventilation system — initially intended to protect the store's electronics, but also ideal for keeping the building germ-free.

Foundation members hope to open the doors in August.

That timetable may be overly optimistic, but that's the way these families operate.

Even Connor's mom, whose doctors told her to take her son "home to die," is hoping he'll be well enough to attend.

"When your child is diagnosed with cancer, you don't think about them possibly not surviving," Hernandez said. "You think about everything you can do to help them along their journey and keep everything normal the best you can."

She mentions school again, and Connor squeals.

• • •

The 1Voice Foundation counts about 800 pediatric cancer patients in the seven counties around Tampa Bay.

There's 6-year-old Madison Cavanaugh, who started first grade this year after two years of chemotherapy.

Madison's favorite part of school is game time. And PE. And her friends. And running around. And her teacher.

She stops jabbering and pauses.

"It's not fun," she says.

What's not fun?

"Cancer."

Should Madison relapse or need more treatments, the 1Voice school would be a great option, said her mom, Lisa Cavanaugh.

Madison might run into Demetri Kotsovolos, a 10-year-old perfectionist and leukemia patient finally well enough for sixth grade.

Demetri meets with a teacher after school for extra help. He's especially worried about next year's classes, his mom, Karen Kotsovolos, said.

A school with "a little more leeway and understanding … would be just spectacular," she said.

And then there's 8-year-old Brooke Martin, who had her first-ever day of school this year at Valrico Elementary.

She cried that day, she now says with a laugh. But "on Wednesday it was good."

Better than being stuck in her sterilized room or forced to wear a face mask, as she had to for two years after a bone marrow transplant. Better than having nothing to do but watch Nickelodeon.

"It was boring," Brooke said.

She rattled off a list of her new friends, stopped to do a math problem and flipped through a book filled with Lion King characters. She looked at a page with a picture of Pumbaa the warthog leaping from a train car.

"He's so afraid of everything," Brooke said, rolling her eyes. "Until he tried it."

Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Cancer kids could soon have school of their own 03/24/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 24, 2011 10:18pm]

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