FULTON, NY – The KEYS Program “Smile Experience” achieved its intended goal, as a number of child cancer patients and their families were all smiles during the most recent KEYS respite day at the Oswego County Quarter Midget Club.
“It’s nice for them,” said KEYS Program founder Colleen Bennett in regards to the KEYS children. “To have a day away from hospitals, needles and doctors. To have a day with their family and a moment to just enjoy life.”
The KEYS Program is a nonprofit organization providing patient support programs for families undergoing the traumatizing experience of cancer or other serious illness.
KEYS Program stands for Kids Educational and Youth Services Program.
“My husband, Dave, and I founded KEYS in 1993 after losing my dad to cancer. I am a music teacher and was able to use music to help provide comfort and therapy for my dad through this journey and end of life. My dad was only 53 when he passed away and we wanted to do something in honor of him. After he passed away, we created KEYS to help other families going through the same difficult time,” explained Bennett. “Our mission is three fold: first, music outreach. This is our patient support programs, including bedside music, family respite days like our Smile Experience, and sibling support programs. Second, music education, we provide workshops to nurses, child life specialist and those who work with pediatric patients on the benefits of music and how to use music in the care of the children they serve. And third, advocacy; raising awareness of the benefits of music and pediatric cancer.”
The Smile Experience invited KEYS families to the Oswego County Quarter Midget track and allowed KEYS kids, both pediatric cancer patients and their siblings, to suit up and drive a USAC quarter midget car around the track.
The kids then drove the car right into victory lane, where they received a trophy and posed for pictures before heading to the announcer for an interview over the loudspeaker.
Four and a half-year-old Parker Davis came to the track from Camden and was a natural in the car.
Perhaps it was from the comfort of having his Uncle Casey coaching him on the track or the fact that he has a four wheeler and a dragster at home, but young Davis took to the track like he had been doing it for years.
“I liked the driving. And I got a flag, a sticker and a trophy!” said Davis as he proudly showed off his winnings.
The Smile Experience also provided local racers with their racecars on display and offering autographs, and a drum circle with a musical therapist.
Kelly Poynter watched and joined in as her 8-year-old daughter, Madeline, who is a six-year cancer survivor, beat the drums with her 6-year-old sister, Gracie.
“This is the first KEYS event we’ve attended,” said Poynter. “And it’s been great. We’ve had a great time. They both looked so cute in their suits.”
While these children have grown accustom to the bland talk of medicine and treatment, the Smile Experience has a strict rule that no one is allowed to speak of illness while attending the event.
This way, the children are given a day to remember that cancer does not define them and allows them to have a day full of laughter and happiness just being their normal, youthful selves.
For the first time, this year the Smile Experience was followed by a one-mile walk around the track called “Miles of Smiles.”
For 10 laps, the walkers honored a different local child that has battled or is currently battling cancer with each lap until they fulfilled one mile of smiles.
Walkers paid a $25 registration fee, in which proceeds were to benefit the KEYS Program and make more respite days and cancer support services possible.
The Miles of Smiles walk and all events at the Smile Experience are free of charge to families participating in the KEYS Program, just as all other services are free of charge for the families being served.
The KEYS Program hit home for Bennett when her family received the devastating news that cancer had struck her family, this time in her young cousin.
It was October of 2013 when 2-year-old Paulie Morley was given the diagnosis of leukemia.
His mother, Angela Schuyler, was by his side every step of the way for his eight month fight before he lost his battle in July of 2014.
Schuyler reached out to Bennett and the KEYS Program for help in founding what has come to be known as “Paulie’s Super Siblings.”
With its official start in July of 2015, Paulie’s Super Siblings kicked off its introduction by raising $1,000 at its summer barbeque event.
The intended goal of Paulie’s Super Siblings is to grant wishes for the siblings of kids with cancer, the ones Schuyler refers to as the “behind the scene heroes.”
Hayden, Schuyler’s 7-year-old daughter, was a large inspiration in the creation of Paulie’s Super Siblings.
As Paulie’s sibling, Schuyler said that Hayden was Paulie’s biggest supporter.
“Paulie received tons of support – gifts, care packages, everything; and we were amazed by it all. But we were also amazed that Hayden never got upset even if she didn’t always understand why Paulie was receiving all these things or why I was missing school functions or not always available for her. So, for us it’s about making sure the siblings feel special, too. They’re important in this fight as much as the others,” said Schuyler.
Paulie’s Super Siblings will hold a tractor show in honor of Paulie on September 12 from noon to 5 p.m. at Granger’s Farm in Mexico.
Admission will be free and includes a tractor show, corn maze, hay rides, petting zoo, lots of pumpkins, raffles and more.
The KEYS Program has provided more than 80,000 free smiles to cancer patients and their families and they show no signs of slowing down when it comes to handing out happiness when it is needed most.
For more information on upcoming KEYS events or for ways to donate to the KEYS Program, visit their website www.thekeysprogram.org