From Darkness — Light
Kids Kicking Cancer helps sick kids find their power and purpose.
“Call me Sunflower.”
“Kate Sunflower?” asks Rabbi G.
“Just Sunflower,” says the 5-year-old with fuzzy blond hair, a dusting of freckles across her nose and a toothless smile a mile wide. “I’ve got sunflower power!” she says before prancing away.
Kate “just call me Sunflower” Michaels is in remission from kidney cancer that was diagnosed at age 4. She’s at her weekly martial arts class, a service of Kids Kicking Cancer, a nonprofit founded in 1999 by Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg (just call him Rabbi G).
Kids Kicking Cancer teaches martial arts techniques to very sick children and their families, helping to empower them physically, emotionally and spiritually in their battle against illness, pain and fear. Their mantra is “Power, Peace, Purpose” and the techniques they use help children gain power over their circumstances, push pain away and bring in peace and light. The children achieve purpose through teaching the skills they’ve mastered to others. The group, which began with an initial enrollment of 12 children, served more than 1,000 patients and their family members in the Metro Detroit area this past year.
Purpose Born Of Pain
Rabbi G launched Kids Kicking Cancer 13 years ago, but its impetus is much older. Thirty-two years ago, his 2-year-old daughter Sara was diagnosed with leukemia. “She was an amazing little spirit,” he said. “Despite her painful treatments, she would comfort me. She would pat me on the back, and say, ‘It’s OK, Abba.’”
Sadly, she lost her battle with cancer. Seven years later, when Rabbi G found himself at Young Israel of Southfield, he was asked to be director of a pediatric oncology camp. It was there he first learned of using martial arts as a therapeutic tool.
Kids Kicking Cancer exists to provide children with tools to help them lower their pain. More than 88 percent of the organization’s interventions profoundly lower a child’s pain.
What’s more, the tools also give the children power and purpose. “When you ask our kids, ‘What’s your purpose?’ they’ll yell out, ‘To teach the world!’ By allowing the children to know that they can teach their parents, the doctors and the nurses, it gives them a sense of control over their situation,” said Rabbi G, national director.
The bulk of the kids in the program find out about Kids Kicking Cancer through the hospital system. “Parents will call us or the kids will recommend the program to other kids,” said Cindy Cohen, Michigan program director for Kids Kicking Cancer. “There’s no charge. Patients just need their physician’s OK to participate.”
Ill children, even those in the midst of heavy-duty treatment, can participate. The martial arts therapists will work with children in their hospital rooms or at their homes if need be.
“Brothers and sisters are also a part of everything we do,” added Cohen. “Cancer or other serious illness affects the whole family.”
Budding Martial Artists
Richard Prowden, chief martial arts therapist for Kids Kicking Cancer, has been with the organization for eight years. He said he’s learned a lot from the children in the program.
“So much of my martial arts was physical before,” said Prowden, who’s been a martial artist for 39 years. “But with the children, there are no high-impact moves, no body-to-body contact.”
Instead, he and the children work on guided imagery and breathing techniques, tools that help the children realize that they’re powerful and help them to fight their battle.
“So many of the young people, 3 years old and up, are mature beyond their years,” Prowden added. “They look out for others; it’s amazing. When I lost my dad, the number of kids who called me and were concerned blew me away.”
Kids Kicking Cancer has a program where it awards black belts to children who are at the end of their lives. On one side of the belt is the child’s name, on the other the words “master teacher.”
“We’ve had kids as young as 5 say that they defeated their cancer, not because they recovered, but because they’re not angry, they’re not afraid, and they’re more connected to God and the people around them,” Rabbi G said.
He tells of one child who was not expected to live out the week. A black belt ceremony was held by the child’s hospital bed. Surprising his doctors, the child recovered enough to leave the hospital and spend another six weeks at home with his family before losing his battle.
“The concept of giving purpose to people going though pain, especially children, is unique — and powerful,” he added.
Cohen said she considers it an honor and a privilege to be a part of these children’s lives as they go through their journeys. “The families need and rely on the support we offer,” she said. “If a child does not survive, the families often continue on in our program.”
Amanda Michaels of Waterford, mom to Kate and Luke, 4, who are both enrolled in Kids Kicking Cancer, found the organization when Kate was about halfway through with her 14-month cancer treatment.
“They came to visit her at the hospital and helped her breathe through her treatments,” she said. “They were very caring and just stepped in and helped our family.”
Michaels says she and her husband, Rob, appreciate that Luke was allowed to join, too. “It’s been stressful for him as well,” she said. “It’s been a hard year. Kate loves the class, and she loves Rabbi G. She’s starting to get her groove back. I’m grateful that she’s doing so well.”
Joel Rosenfeld and his wife Amy Beth Garon Rosenfeld of Bloomfield Township found out about Kids Kicking Cancer a few years ago at a booth at Temple Beth El. His 5½- year-old twins, Zachery and Daniel, have been battling a chronic lung disease since birth that requires uncomfortable treatments several times a day. Both boys are involved in Kids Kicking Cancer, and big sister Raquel, 8, participates occasionally as well.
“I spoke with Carol, who told me that the boys, although they don’t have cancer, could still participate,” said Joel Rosenfeld. “It’s become an important part of their lives. Their instructor, Peter, is their mentor, and they look up to him almost like a second dad.
“They’ve learned deep breathing and how to focus. One of the best treatments for their condition is exercise, so this is an important part of their treatment program.”
Kids Kicking Cancer has expanded its program to hospitals in Canada, New York and Italy, and will soon be launching a program at Hadassah Hospital in Israel. Each program is launched with a business model that includes a board that agrees to be responsible for the location’s funding. The goal is to reproduce a group of supporters in each place.
The program in Detroit, however, was not launched with that business model.
“For a number of years we were blessed with federal earmark appropriations,” said Rabbi G. “Sen. Carl Levin, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Rep. Joe Knollenberg — a number of people on both sides of the aisle — were really behind us and got us the funding we needed.”
Until 2009. That’s when all earmarks to Kids Kicking Cancer stopped because of the political climate in Washington D.C.
“Now, we do a lot of praying,” Rabbi G said. “We’ve had to cut back significantly, and have even been advised to close our program here, but with God’s help we’re not going to close the Detroit program.”
Kids Kicking Cancer is reaching out to ethnic communities in Michigan, including the Arab and Jewish communities. The organization is looking for sponsors to help them share their mission — and their Heroes’ Circle program — with the public.
Martial arts therapists, such as Plowden and sensei Peter Davenport, train the children to use the “Breath Brake” and other meditative techniques to deflect stress and pain. The children then become the core teachers of the Heroes’ Circle.
Heroes’ Circle members train their parents, siblings and others how to use breathing to control stress, pain, fear and anger. Members of the Heroes’ Circle have even taught frazzled businesspeople at Pfizer, Wal-Mart and CVS how to control their stress.
If you would like to learn from these pint-sized heroes, you have a chance on Thursday, June 28, at the “Teaching The World Event,” which begins with a reception at 6 p.m. at the Berman Center for the Performing Arts in West Bloomfield.
The event is co-chaired by Dr. Joel Kahn, clinical professor of medicine at Wayne State University School of Medicine and medical director of Wellness Programs, Preventive Cardiology and Cardiac Rehabilitation at Detroit Medical Center, and Dr. Jeffrey Taub, division chief, oncology at Children’s Hospital of Michigan and professor of pediatrics at Wayne State.
Lila Lazarus, current Kids Kicking Cancer president, will emcee the program, which features children enrolled in the Heroes’ Circle program who will take the Berman stage at 7 p.m. to teach adults in the audience the very same breath work that helps them deal with their pain. Those in the audience will be empowered to use this simple method to significantly lower their stress.
“There is no cost,” said Rabbi G, “except the willingness to give these kids a standing ovation.”
Rabbi G said he’s hoping to fill the room with members of the Jewish community because Kids Kicking Cancer has a particular affinity with Judaism, he says.
“Judaism is a very holistic religion,” he said. “It’s all about power, peace, purpose. That we believe there is this light above us and, despite the challenges in our lives, that the perfect God created the imperfect world perfectly and we can find peace, and ultimately it gives us purpose,” he said. “To me that’s the essence of the priestly blessing that the Bible describes, and it’s the reason Jewish holidays always begin the night before. The Talmud says that’s because sometimes you can only appreciate the light after you’ve been through the darkness … that totally sums up what Kids Kicking Cancer is about.”By Jackie Headapohl, managing editor