Students at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills embarked on a semester-long class that included stuffing backpacks with items of comfort for patients with pediatric cancer.

Students at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills embarked on a semester-long class that included stuffing backpacks with items of comfort for patients with pediatric cancer.

Photo provided by Lisa Wilson

Local students embark on project to help comfort cancer patients

By: Mark Vest | Farmington Press | Published March 8, 2023


FARMINGTON HILLS — Earlier this year, eighth grade students at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills took part in a “life-changing” project.

In September, the students began a semester-long elective class called Tikkun Olam, which is a concept in Judaism that means repairing the world.

It is a new elective at Hillel, according to the school’s makerspace coordinator, Lisa Wilson.

“A big part of what I do is designed thinking — teaching kids at age-appropriate levels how to design things, beginning and ending with empathy in mind, and I thought, ‘That dovetails perfectly with the concept of Tikkun Olam — how can we repair the world?’” Wilson said. “So the kids spent a semester going through the whole designed thinking process. … They really wanted to do something about cancer. … What could we do about cancer to help heal the world in some way? And they decided that they wanted to help pediatric cancer patients by providing them comfort and support, because cancer’s really scary and overwhelming, and a lot of my students could relate to that because they knew people who had gone through cancer.”

Wilson said that the class met once a week during the semester.

One of the ideas that the class came up with was to place items intended to provide comfort inside backpacks for pediatric cancer patients.

The items included buttons and bracelets with inspirational words, socks with grippers on the bottom that are useful in hospitals, stuffed animals, games, and lip balm.

“We had Chapstick because we were told that their lips often get really chapped while they’re in the hospital going through treatment,” Wilson said.

Each of the backpacks also included a book, with one for children ages 2-6, another for children ages 7-12, and another for those between the ages of 13 and 18.

“The little kids have a book about what it’s like to be treated at the hospital for a diagnosis of cancer — going through how you might be feeling to how it might all turn out,” Wilson said. “The middle kids have a book that’s similar, but at a higher reading level. And then the big kids have a book of positive (affirmations) — it’s almost like an adult coloring book that encourages them to keep fighting, keep pushing. And then, finally, the last thing they put in was a caregiver resource folder … because they wanted to also support the people who are taking care of these kids.”

According to Wilson, the first backpack is going to a seventh-grader at Hillel who was recently diagnosed with leukemia.

That backpack was expected to be delivered after press time, along with backpacks intended to go to a children’s hospital in Detroit.

The class set about doing research to determine effective ways to provide comfort.

“They spent a lot of time researching and speaking to people who had gone through this cancer journey to figure out, what would be the things that would help kids feel less overwhelmed and less afraid, and comfortable as well? So, the backpacks are just full of things,” Wilson said.

One portion of the class involved hearing from the family of Leah Torgow, who was 9 years old when she died last June.

“There were tears, but they were so respectful,” Wilson said. “She was this bright, happy, well-adjusted little girl, based on her parents’ description.”

Wilson said that Torgow rarely got down about her diagnosis.

“She had four brothers and sisters, and they basically went to live at the hospital for a month at a time,” Wilson said. “She sounded like a remarkable girl, and I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet her. But she has definitely left an impression on the kids. … We feel like she’s kind of the ninth student in the room.”

Prior to putting together the care packages, the students also heard from an occupational therapist who discussed the physical limitations of a child who is going through chemotherapy and radiation.

Jillian Schaffer was one of the students who took the class. She discussed what she took from the experience.

“I think the fact that we got to help people, and it wasn’t just talking about acts of kindness, (it was) actually doing something and putting it out there to help people in the world,” Schaffer said.

Blake Weitzman was another student in the class, and he also took something from it.

“Having the feeling that we helped someone,” he said. “(It will) most likely be something that they’ll remember for their whole life. … It was a thought of kindness, and I think that it’s what they need. It’s a hard time for them.”

Wilson said that the students were “into this project.” According to her, they presented the idea of making it a legacy project at Hillel to the school’s leadership committee.

“We do things around here, but a lot of it’s centered on fundraising, which is a valuable experience for kids to have, but when you get your hands dirty and you’re making those bracelets and you’re doing that research and you’re talking to families who have lost a child, it becomes much more ingrained; there’s a stronger connection to the cause than just raising money,” Wilson said. “So that was something that was really an important aspect of this class. … To me, it’s life-changing for them.”

Wilson said that she has been a teacher for 23 years. She described the students in the class as articulate, thoughtful, considerate and compassionate.

The Tikkun Olam class has been so rewarding that she said she would like to teach it “all day, every day.”

“It just really had a deep impact on these kids,” Wilson said. “It was a really rewarding experience for me as an educator.”

Weitzman didn’t know what was in store when he took the class.

“When I joined the class at the beginning of the year, I had no clue what to expect,” he said. “I had no clue what Tikkun Olam is. … I thought it was very rewarding, very heartfelt; it makes you feel good. … It was a really great thing to do, and I hope that this next class for Tikkun Olam also has great ideas.”

The class also exceeded Schaffer’s expectations.

“It was a lot bigger than I thought,” she said. “We really made an impact.”