SRU students box up ‘playful diversions’ for childhood cancer patients

Haylie Schmidt

Haylie Schmidt, a senior from Allison Park and member of Slippery Rock University’s chapter of the Student Pennsylvania State Education Association, recently assisted in the organization’s Jared Box distribution to patients at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.

Jan. 25, 2017

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - For most children across the country, everyday life is pretty routine: eat, sleep, play and repeat. Toss in a helping hand of elementary school and the recipe for being a kid is pretty much complete.

That simple approach can get a little complicated, however, when illness is introduced into the equation. Especially when the cause is cancer.

Childhood cancers, the leading cause of death by disease among children in the United States, are different from those seen in adults. According to the American Cancer Society, the most common cancers among children are:

  • Leukemia;
  • Brain and spinal cord tumors;
  • Neuroblastoma;
  • Wilms tumor;
  • Lymphoma (including both Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin);
  • Rhabdomyosarcoma;
  • Retinoblastoma; and
  • Bone cancer (including osteosarcoma and Ewing sarcoma)

It's the type of thing that can not only make for long hospital stays, but also zap the life and laughter right out of a child - especially when recess and video games are replaced by IVs and chemotherapy.

Enter Maria Wittman, a Slippery Rock University dual childhood and special education major from Plumborough, and her Jared Box distribution plan for patients at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

"(The boxes) give the children a little bit of a distraction from the treatments and pain they are going through, in a place that might be scary for them," said Wittman.

A Jared Box is a plastic storage box filled with small gifts, toys, games and fun activities. Each box contains items selected for a specific age and gender and delivered to hospitals. The boxes provide "a special diversion for young patients in emergency rooms, patient rooms, surgical centers and clinics as they receive chemotherapy and other medical treatments," according to The Jared Box Project website.

The Jared Box project, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, began in 2001 by the children at Our Lady of Victory School in State College, to honor their classmate and friend, Jared, who was diagnosed with an incurable brainstem tumor in 1999.

According to the website, Jared maintained his sense of humor and the joys of childhood through play. He carried a backpack full of toys and games to all appointments and questioned why the other children he saw didn't bring toys to their exam rooms. Jared shared his toys and invited the other children to join him in a game of UNO. Jared succumbed to his illness Nov. 12, 2000.

Wittman, who also serves as president of the SRU chapter of the Student Pennsylvania State Education Association, initiated the Jared Box project at SRU as a service activity for fellow PSEA students at a recent conference at the Smith Student Center.

"I figured it was something college students could easily contribute to and get behind," said Wittman. "Our first priority as PSEA students are the children of our communities and making an impact on the world even before we enter our professions."

The PSEA conference brought together students from 12 different schools - in and out of the state - to revisit the organization's core values and to collectively plan community service projects. Embracing the Jared Box Project, the 150 students in attendance recently assembled 90 boxes for patients at UPMC's Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh..

"We are always looking for ways to help our immediate neighbors, like Slippery Rock, but we also deliberately seek to go beyond our community," said Wittman. "Packing and delivering those Jared Boxes was a way to do just that."

While the project fulfilled Wittman's desire for active community involvement, it also hit a very personal note.

"My boyfriend's mother, Samantha Weakland, is the principal at Jared's former school," said Wittman. "In addition, his sister was a friend and classmate of Jared's. Having that connection to the little boy who started all of this is really motivating. What we are doing here at SRU is more than packing boxes. We are a team of people keeping his memory alive."

Weakland said her connection to Jared moved her to come to the aid of other children like him.

"As principal of the school where the project started, I feel a commitment to continue it," she said. "When I see the donation of boxes each year, the outpouring of help from our community, the look of pride in our students faces and the grateful words from families, I feel truly inspired.

"The Project reminds us all to think of others in their time of need, to show compassion and to participate in community service."

To donate to the cause, pack a box or for more information, visit: http://www.thejaredbox.com/pages/index.html.

MEDIA CONTACT: Maizee Zaccone | 724.738.2091 | mxz1016@sru.edu