By Geri Neita
Fun! Dancing! Laughter!
Perhaps not the words you’d expect to hear about anything concerning childhood cancer, but they were the words most often mentioned when I spoke to people about the Riley Cancer Center Prom. For a brief moment each year, 100-150 young cancer patients and their families are able to come together for a magical evening that transports them away from the typical hospital setting, allowing them to put aside their daily worries and concerns.
When sisters-in-law Gigi and Christina Kite were approached by the Riley Foundation to start a women’s guild in 2006, it didn’t take long for them to accept the challenge. They each asked five friends to jump on board, and along with a staff member and advisor, they came up with a mission statement to serve patients and their families. And so, Women for Riley was born.
The group was initially intended to be a giving circle with the understanding that today’s women are busy and have many commitments. Their purpose was to raise money for a grant program to support the local hospital.
Early on, the organization provided Riley with Spanish children’s books and taxi fares to transport families to and from the hospital. They were on their way but were still looking for something more.
“We were growing and had these monies, and we wondered how we could best apply them,” said Gigi, a Zionsville resident and mother who knew that the innate nurturing ability of women would help them understand a family’s needs during such a stressful and emotional time.
So as the group was contemplating how to make a difference and stay true to its mission, members of the Riley Hospital staff attended a conference where they learned about Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s Pediatric Prom. Social worker Stacey Downing and an associate brought the concept back to Indiana and presented it to Women for Riley.
“We pitched the idea to our Cancer Center representative through the Riley Children’s Foundation, and she connected us with the fabulous Women for Riley who were hoping to take on a project helping families at this level,” said Stacey. “Working together, we have three events included in the Prom – Promingdale’s [a free shopping opportunity where patients and their siblings get outfitted for the Prom], a day spa [makeup, nails and hair styling provided at no cost to patients, siblings and caregivers] and the Prom itself. It has been a wonderful collaboration between the Women for Riley and the Cancer Center Social Work team.”
Initially the idea was that the group could provide a little food, maybe some clothes for needy families. “Well you get a group of women together, and that evolved,” said Lee Neff, charter member and president of Women for Riley. “This group of women had the capability to be able to pull it off and do bigger things than anybody ever imagined.”
The Prom committee is selected in the fall, and they are immediately off and running, collecting shoes, jewelry, purses, belts, hair accessories and formal wear in all sizes. According to Lee, the response from the community is always amazing. They thoroughly embrace the cause, giving generously in so many ways.
This year, the guild is focusing on collecting boys clothes. “They have lots of dresses,” Lee said, adding that they plan to fill in certain sizes such as little girls’ since there is a greater need for larger sizes that aren’t typically donated. Then once the clothing is collected, Fabric Care Center provides the necessary dry cleaning services. Last year that totaled more than 500 items!
Changing Footprints, an organization that collects shoes for underprivileged people worldwide, also contributes to the Riley Cancer Center Prom by donating dress shoes. “They don’t really need as many dress shoes for what their purposes are,” Lee said. Women for Riley also has a relationship with Jim’s Formal Wear out of Anderson, providing tuxedos for the evening of the special event.
“But lots of times, if we have them, we give the formal wear to the families,” Lee said. “They’re so appreciative.” Afterwards the clothing is often worn to weddings, family events and church events. “Some young girls have been buried in their Prom outfits,” Lee said, emphasizing how meaningful the gesture is to the children and their families.
Two weeks prior to Prom, conference rooms are converted into upscale boutiques, and
Promgoers are then invited to ‘shop’ at Promingdale’s for the perfect outfit! “You are assigned a family, and you get a chance to bond with them. Then when you go to the Prom and they recognize you as the person who helped them pick their dream dress or tux, it is so touching,” said Julia McCallum, Zionsville resident and event decor chairperson for 2014. “I’ve had so many kids run and hug and ask to dance,” she said.
Originally Promingdale’s was only intended to cater to patients, but the very first year, it became obvious that siblings should be included too. Lee, whose son Philip was treated at Riley for a rare neurodegenerative disease, knew firsthand that when a child has a serious illness, the whole family needs a little TLC. Today the organization suits them all up – patients, siblings and parents!
Of the Promingdale’s experience, Lee said, “These kids would come and stay for hours. They would try on all the jewelry and shoes, and they’d walk around and talk to people. Then we found that families were talking to each other and sharing their experiences with each other. We thought all we were doing was providing clothes, but we were blown away by the whole social aspect of it – families connecting with families.”
The Kahoun family from Zionsville was invited to the Riley Cancer Center Prom in 2012 when 2-year-old Ruby was approaching her sixth month of treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia. “We didn’t really know what to expect,” said Ruby’s mom, Jenny. “We were invited and thought it would be a fun thing for our family to do.” Ruby’s parents were overwhelmed at the time. They were still trying to wrap their brains around what was going on treatment-wise and still getting used to all the terminology. “We thought seeing some other people in the same situation might be helpful, so we agreed to go,” Jenny said.
On the day of the fitting, Jenny took her two older children, Gracie and Bodie, out of school. “It was so magical,” she said. “They had personal shoppers that took my 9-year-old girl and just made her feel amazing – from picking out clothes, accessories and shoes to dresses, hair things and purses. My son had a blast picking out a tuxedo and trying on shoes and top hats.” Jenny was thrilled to find out that it was a family event which she hadn’t anticipated. “I thought it was going to be all about Ruby, but it really felt special for my older kids,” she said.
During the morning and afternoon of Prom, guests are invited to an onsite spa for a little pampering. Patients, moms and siblings may choose to have their hair styled and nails done while dads are invited to enjoy a relaxing massage. But that day, Ruby was too sick to go to the spa. “Everything in the cancer world is based on your numbers and your blood work, so if you’re under a certain level, you have to be in isolation,” Jenny said. “We were just fearful we weren’t even going to be able to go to the event.” Ruby, who continues to grow and thrive, finally got clearance from her doctors, and the family was so thankful!
The Prom theme was Willy Wonka with candy and chocolate fountains galore. “This was amazing what these ladies put together,” Jenny said, “from decorations, photography, tattoos and face paintings to the DJ and food, it really felt magical in every aspect!” [Food is provided by Levy’s Restaurant and in-keeping with the Prom theme, all while fitting the bill for cancer patients.]
“We try to look for a theme that appeals to children young and old,” Julia said. “We don’t want it to be too babyish for some of the older kids, but at the same time, we want to capture the young kids and make everybody happy with the experience.”
Each year, the event takes place in Fairbanks Hall, connected to Riley Hospital where the IU Health administrative offices are located. Most of the attendees are out-patients, having received active treatment within 12 months leading up to the event, but some patients are back in the hospital for various reasons. Setting up the Prom in Fairbanks Hall allows these patients, if they feel well enough, to hop on the monorail and attend the event without ever leaving the hospital campus.
The theme for this year’s event, to be held on May 2, is ‘Passport to Adventure.’ “We thought that a lot of these kids don’t have the chance to travel. A lot of them are at Riley Hospital and receiving phenomenal care but kind of miss out on seeing the world. So we wanted to bring the world to them,” said Julia, who has been with Women for Riley for three years.
The decorating team will have 24 hours to turn the first floor of Fairbanks Hall into a wonderland that will include an African safari, Arabian Nights, a Chinese festival and Antarctica, replete with polar bears and snow. “It’s a very large space to turn around in 24 hours. It’s a lot of hard work, but it is so well worth it,” Julia said.
The biggest hurdle for the decor committee, Julia said, is the budget. “We want to decorate an enormous space for as little as we can. We love to see the memories that are created with these patients and their families, and I think each year, we all try to outdo ourselves. We try so hard to add more and more elements each year because we just get so much gratification, seeing these kids’ eyes just brighten up.”
When I asked Julia if she had a special memory of the Riley Cancer Center Prom, she said:
“We had a patient, Maddy Justice, who was such a light in so many people’s lives. She turned 15 this past November, right before she lost her battle with leukemia, and for the last two years, she, her sister, mother and father would come. I just loved seeing those girls go into the dressing rooms, come out and twirl around and to see Maddy be able to experience what it was like to go to a prom [when she passed away, she was a sophomore in high school and never got the opportunity to attend her high school prom]. She left this last year to go to a clinical trial at St. Jude’s but negotiated with her doctors to go after she attended the Prom. She literally makes it all so clear to me why I want to work hard for this group and why I want to give this experience to these kids.”
“The Prom is our big signature event,” Gigi said of Women for Riley. Membership comes with a three year commitment which includes a $1,000 donation each year. But people don’t seem to want to leave the organization which has about 85 active members and 30 associate members.
“We find that once somebody goes through Prom, they’re hooked,” said Lee.
Learn more about Women for Riley:
Help the Kahouns support other families who are dealing with childhood cancer: