Kids Kicking Cancer instructors teach young people at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, Israel. The KKC program is in nine hospitals in Israel and in 72 organizations worldwide.

Local organization, Kids Kicking Cancer, celebrates 20 years of bringing power, peace and purpose to sick children around the world.

By Elizabeth Katz

Featured photo courtesy of Kids Kicking Cancer

Twenty years ago, Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg, more affectionately known as Rabbi G, turned a personal tragedy of losing his 2-year-old daughter Sara to leukemia into something that has brought power, peace and purpose to children who have been diagnosed with cancer and other diseases.

Today, his organization Kids Kicking Cancer (KKC) has reached approximately 15,000 children around the world, from those who visit the dojo in Southfield to as far away as Israel and Italy.

“Our goal is to reach every child in the world,” said Rabbi G, who is founder and international director of KKC, as well as clinical assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit. “Giving children the tools to breathe in the light and blow out the darkness gives them a sense of power.”

Rabbi G and Ruthie, his wife of 40 years, experienced the heartbreak of losing their first child Sara in 1982. And while the death of any child presents a “significant challenge” to any marriage, according to Rabbi G, the experience brought the couple closer and launched the organization that is celebrating its anniversary in June.

“My inspiration was Sara,” Rabbi G said. “She was my first inspiration. I feel this ongoing connection with my daughter and her soul. My daughter continues to ‘travel’ with me.”

Kids Kicking Cancer plans an anniversary celebration later this summer and the renaming of its offices and dojo in Southfield to the Natalie and Manny Charach Global Kids Kicking Cancer Center, thanks to a $1.2 million donation by the couple.

Rabbi G said the donation will allow KKC to grow its global therapy by investing in sustainable program systems and computer-based platforms. KKC has created video training for its growing staff and volunteers and has invested in proving its cost-effective therapeutic program for children.

“Our goal is to use this funding to further integrate our care as a standard of pediatrics, using our simple but effective tools,” he said. “We have seen wonderful results that compare favorably with more difficult and costly interventions. In our brain scans, we have evidenced profound neurological benefits compared with mindfulness or distraction.”

KKC goes global

Kids Kicking Cancer is now in 72 institutions globally. In addition to the program continuing its work in Michigan hospitals, it is in nine hospitals in Israel and 12 in South Africa. Rabbi G and his staff are now looking to bring the program to children in Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique as well as Egypt and Jordan.

Rabbi G said the mission of the organization, which is to ease the pain of very sick children while empowering them to heal physically, spiritually and emotionally, transcends religions and is now ready to be taken “to the next level.”

“This is an important time in our progress,” he said. “By 2025, we have a goal of reaching 1 million children.”

KKC is doing that by building up its digital and electronic platforms so that program information can be viewed across the globe. The organization is also keeping activities local, including teaching children at Pepper Elementary School in Oak Park about the program, which includes recognizing pain but using breath, meditation and martial arts movements to get past it.

“We teach children to imagine the pain and break through it,” said Rabbi G. “We teach every child the power of martial arts and that it centers you in the soul.”

Rabbi G added that the program inspires children to feel empowered and, in turn, transforms them into teachers who can teach their parents and other adults about power and focus that comes through breath.

“When these children teach, they bring light to the world,” he said, which speaks to the Jewish value of finding light amid darkness.

Children As Teachers

Aletha McKay, mother of 12-year-old Grace, said her daughter and her siblings, Danielle, 13, and Faith, 5, have all benefitted from the program. Grace was diagnosed with T cell lymphoblastic leukemia when she was 7. McKay said she was unprepared when she saw the X-ray that showed a mass so large on Grace’s left side that it was beginning to block her carotid artery.

“That was a huge blow,” said the Farmington resident. “Nothing prepares you to hear that news and to see that X-ray.”

McKay said her daughter at 7 was already involved in martial arts and was enthusiastic about her classes. Though Grace was hesitant at first to get involved with Kids Kicking Cancer at Children’s Hospital of Michigan due to her depression over her illness, once she made friends, she wholeheartedly took to the program.

“One of the huge things that KKC focuses on is breathing and self-control,” McKay said. “Pain is a message you don’t have to listen to. Even getting chemotherapy port access was a big deal (for Grace). She learned how to breathe and to do a body scan. It was a much smoother visit to the clinic once Grace joined Kids Kicking Cancer.”

Today, Grace has no cancer present in her body, according to her medical scans.

And now that all three of her daughters are involved in KKC, McKay finds them reminding her to breathe during stressful times.

“There are times that I will get frustrated by things and one of the kids will say, ‘Mom, are you doing your power breathing?’” she said with a laugh.

Pain Becomes Inspiration

Michael Hunt, a martial arts therapist with Kids Kicking Cancer, says he has been involved with the program from almost day one. Hunt was 9 years old in 1997 when he was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer that can affect soft tissue, such as muscle, connective tissue, such as tendons or cartilage, or bone. Hunt’s cancer manifested itself as a grapefruit-sized tumor on his left side.

Tumor removal required surgery that also removed four of his ribs. Hunt also underwent chemotherapy and radiation. He is cancer-free today but still lives with residual side effects.

As a therapist, he teaches children who are now in the same place that he was in as a child. He adds that every needle stick he had to undergo and all the pain he felt were worth it if he can help alleviate another child’s fear, anxiety and pain.

“I see a little bit of myself in all of them,” he said. “I’m able to share my experience with them. It is my hope that we continue to expand and help more kids to ease their pain.”

To learn more about Kids Kicking Cancer or to make a donation, call (248) 864-8238.

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