Outings Help Children Escape the Shadow of Their Parents’ Cancer

Times Staff Writer

The little boy stared intently at the pumpkin, then painstakingly began to draw a face on it. He sketched eyes, nose, a turned-down mouth and, finally, tears streaming down one cheek.

Beto Balderas, 8, worked for more than an hour, drawing and re-drawing, never lifting his gaze to the other children sitting nearby in the sunny park.

His father has brain cancer.

And Saturday at Palms Recreation Center, Beto was one of 40 children participating in a daylong outing for boys and girls whose parents have cancer, usually in the advanced stages.


Carolyn Russell, director of patient services for the Coastal Cities Unit of American Cancer Society, which sponsored the picnic, said that this and other outings are designed to let the children know it’s OK for them to have a good time, despite the tragedy that has entered their lives.

By the end of the day, Beto was playing with the other children.

“They’re all aware their parents have cancer,” Russell said. “What we’re trying to do is help them give each other a safe feeling. It’s like we’re giving them permission to have fun and laugh. The Cancer Society is directed toward the patient, providing stability in the home. They have camps for kids who have cancer.”

Members of the Coastal Cities chapter, however, decided they wanted to do something special for patients’s children and began the periodic outings last summer--the only cancer society program of its type in the country.


Although the program serves the area from Malibu to Harbor City,

other nearby chapters may participate in the outings. Parents may enroll their children by calling Coastal Cities chapter at (213) 670-2650.

Often when some parents feel they are getting well, they don’t want their children in the program, Russell said. It’s as though they’re admitting they may not recover. But when the cancer reaches an advanced stage and parents become weak or bedridden, many are grateful their children have an opportunity to get away from illness for a while and enjoy themselves. The outings also provide welcome rest periods for the parent.

Russell recalled a recent children’s visit to the circus, when the West Los Angeles Kiwanis donated tickets. On the day of the event, she received a call from one of the mothers. “She told me she didn’t think her children could go that day,” Russell said. “Their father had died the night before, but the children really wanted to go.”


Trip to the Circus

The mother decided the children should go, Russell said. The mother’s reasoning: “They will have enough days to cry and they may not go to the circus again.”

Many children in the program have only one parent at home, “the one who has cancer,” Russell said. “A lot of times, with adolescent kids, as the person with cancer has less control, the kid becomes the caretaker. He assumes the responsibility for the younger ones. Maybe they’re in junior high school. It’s tough to get out to a basketball game with that responsibility.

“That’s the gap we’re trying to fill.”


Volunteer Rita LaCarra, who drove several carloads of children to the picnic, told of a conversation she overheard recently while driving some of the children.

“One of them said very casually, ‘My father is dying.’

“Another said, ‘In our home the mother is the one who is sick.’

“The child’s mother has brain cancer,” LaCarra said. ‘Some of these kids live under the poorest conditions. I don’t know if God makes them special or what, but they are special kids. . . . The father (with brain cancer) works, but the poor man makes the minimum wage and they have five children.”


Like Beto Balderas, many children are quiet when they first arrive, but before the day is out, they appear to be having a good time, Russell said.

Holding Back

At the other end of picnic table where Beto worked on the pumpkin, a tiny dark-haired 4-year-old girl clung to her 9-year-old brother’s hand. A volunteer tried to interest her in an arts project.

“She won’t do anything without me,” the brother explained. Their mother has Hodgkin’s disease.


Later, however, when a colorful pinata was strung between two trees, the little girl ran to the front of the line of eager children. She took her turn, enthusiastically swatting at the pinata. When it broke and candy scattered all over the ground she was in the midst of the children, stuffing a plastic bag.

Across the lawn at a picnic table, two other girls sat talking. One, small for her 11 years, pointed to her own underarm and said, “My mommy had an operation. She had lumps under her arm.”

The other girl, slightly older, said matter of factly, “She has breast cancer, just like my mother.”

“My mother was sick, but she’s not anymore,” the 11-year-old said. “She gets shots in her hand. Her back hurts her now.”


Looking owlishly through her oversized glasses, she said, “My mommy had her hair cut. I cried when she had it cut.”

The day’s activities brought a needed change for Beto. Even though he has older siblings to help out at home, he too has responsibilities. His mother must stay home to care for his father, who cannot work. She baby-sits for other people’s children to bring in a little extra money, he said.

‘He Couldn’t Breathe’

“Sometimes I help my mother by playing with the babies,” he said. “Sometimes I help her with my dad. One time I helped her sit him up. He couldn’t breathe.”


Merchants and schools have joined in the program. Helping at Saturday’s picnic were students from Westchester High School’s Interact Club, accompanied by teacher Leo Terrell.

The day before, Russell worried that no one would donate pumpkins. But local Rotarians and Mar Vista Market came through with dozens of all sizes.

Volunteer Abby Vega had put her persuasive powers to work for more donations and ended up with pizzas from California Pizza Kitchen in Beverly Hills, and Nate-n-Al’s Deli chipped in with more food.

During the picnic, one little girl saved half of all her food, then asked for foil to wrap it and take it home to her mother.


Coming up soon are horseback riding at Pepperdine University and cooking lessons at Ma Maison. Russell and her assistant, Gayle Gilbert, are trying to get tickets for Disneyland and some Lakers games.

The day was drawing to a close when Beto returned the pumpkin he had left on the picnic table. He stepped up on the bench and began scooping out the inside of the pumpkin and, lifting his hands high, gleefully squeezed it through his fingers.

Watching the children at play, Gilbert echoed the feelings of staff members and volunteers when she said, “The best thing for us is to see them smile.”