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Reaching out to families of childhood cancer

Group creates ‘Hope Totes’ for mothers of newly diagnosed kids

Members of the MOPS group gather with some of their children during a recent MOPS meeting at Minooka Bible Church in Minooka. Kris Stadalsky for Shaw Media
Members of the MOPS group gather with some of their children during a recent MOPS meeting at Minooka Bible Church in Minooka. Kris Stadalsky for Shaw Media

MINOOKA – Reaching out to other mothers and the community at large is a major focus of the organization MOPS, Mothers of Preschoolers. The local group, which meets at Minooka Bible Church, took on a project that reached out not only to other moms but also to those with children who have been diagnosed with cancer.

“Charitable work and service is a big part of our organization,” said Meg Pennington, MOPS co-coordinator in Minooka.

Two members of the Minooka Bible Church MOPS group have children recently diagnosed with leukemia. Erica Sandeno and Nichole Brooks were both members of the organization when their children, Evan Sandeno and Aubrey Brooks, were diagnosed.

Being a part of the MOPS group, even before Evan Sandeno’s diagnosis, meant a lot to Erica Sandeno. But the extra support from other moms since has meant the world, she said.

She has twins who are younger than Evan. She joined MOPS two years ago as a way to connect with other mothers and to get a break from daily chores and child care without the issues of arranging a baby sitter or being home at a scheduled time. MOPS provides in-house child care during its bimonthly meetings.

When Evan Sandeno, who is now 7, was diagnosed with leukemia in December, life got even more difficult for the family from Dwight.

“I feel like I couldn’t have done it without the group,” Erica Sandeno said. “I feel like God prepared me to
have twins and a child with cancer by giving me this group.”

The group of 65 members and friends has made many meals – both hot and freezer meals – they text Sandeno
with prayers and good thoughts and even gave her Dunkin’ Donuts gift cards to feed her coffee addiction, she said.

“They have done stuff for all of my kids; just been there for me. I couldn’t tell you everything they’ve done,” Sandeno said.

Sandeno remembers back to one MOPS meeting in particular, prior to her son’s diagnosis, when Nichole Brooks asked fellow group members to pray for her preschooler, Aubrey, who was diagnosed with leukemia.

“I remember that breaking my heart,” Sandeno said. “I didn’t know as I stood there that my child had cancer, too.”

After finding out that Sandeno’s son also had leukemia, Brooks proposed an idea to their MOPS group that would raise funds and help other parents dealing with childhood cancer.

The idea stemmed from a gift bag full of essentials, which Brooks received from a friend, to take along to the many hospital and clinic visits.

“When your child is diagnosed, it’s never something you are expecting,” Brooks said.

Brooks then gave a similar gift tote to another mom when her child was first diagnosed.

Dr. Jason Canner, a pediatric oncologist at the Keyser Family Pediatric Cancer Center of Advocate Children’s Hospital and co-founder of Cure It Foundation, whose mission is to win the fight against childhood cancer, saw the bag and loved the idea.

Canner calls it a survival bag.

“It gave the mom [with a newly diagnosed child] some confidence and made her a little more comfortable in an uncomfortable setting,” Canner said.

Minooka MOPS and Cure It Foundation have now teamed to create the survival bags filled with things newly diagnosed parents need to help them through the tough road ahead. The bags are called Hope Totes.

Through an online auction Sept. 26 through 28, Minooka MOPS held the Families of Hope fundraiser, which raised money to purchase the totes and the supplies.

Inside the bag were things parents of newly diagnosed children would never know they are going to need, said Brooks. Such as a roll of Glad Stretch and Seal, necessary to cover the child’s chemotherapy port when the numbing cream is applied. The medical-grade adhesive supplied by hospitals is so strong it can tear the child’s skin when removed.

Also inside was a robe and slippers for the child, to make chemo visits more tolerable. There’s stress relief soap and hand cream for parents, a planner book, toiletries and lots of sanitizer.

The Hope Totes, which were distributed through the Cure It Foundation, are to be the family’s go-to bag; all the essentials they’ll need in one place so they can focus on their child and their family.

“Anything to take your mind off those immediate concerns is awesome,” Brooks said.

Once Minooka MOPS completed the project, Cure It Foundation was created to continue making the bags.

“I see this as a terrific idea,” Canner said. “I think Nichole [Brooks], Meg [Pennington] and the other moms have come up with a really good list of quality items for the bags.”

As many as 13,500 children are diagnosed with cancer each year.

“We would really like every new family to get one of these bags,” Canner said.

Parents of newly diagnosed children frequently want to know how to help other families. The Hope Totes are a great way for them to be involved, said Canner.

“Getting support from other parents going through the same thing [is important], he said.

To make a donation directly to the cause, email Pennington at

The MOPS organization itself is a way for moms to connect, share parenting tips, hear speakers, participate in a craft or just have some “free time” to socialize.

The mission work and fundraising efforts, particularly the fight against childhood cancer, adds an entirely different dimension to their lives.

“After a while it’s hard to be the center of attention,” said Sandeno. “Now I’m focusing on other people, on their situation and helping them.

“It helps us get through,” Sandeno said. “I absolutely love this group.”

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