(Editor’s Note: This story was republished in part at Better.net in alignment with a partnership between the two nonprofits: The Record Community News and Make it Better Media Group.)
Three local couples bonded over a common enemy: cancer.
As they endured and supported each other as peers, they realized that their children, who endured a similar but more unique challenge, needed peers too.
They founded Pickles Group.
“They all were navigating a similar situation. They all had a parent with a cancer diagnosis. In the case of the Hlavaceks they had two,” said Cassandra Horton, executive director of Pickles Group. “They were looking for some support for their children.”
Wilmette’s Jeff Hlavacek was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2019, and his wife Erika Hlavacek was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2017. The couple has two children.
Ned Smith was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2018. He and his wife, Erin Smith, have four children and live in Wilmette.
Mark Agnew, of Winnetka, was also diagnosed with brain cancer in 2019. With his wife, Carolyn Agnew, he also has four children.
Some of the families’ children were included in Pickles Group’s pilot program, which launched Oct. 18 with eight children after school at Winnetka Community House and Crow Island School.
“The Pickles Empower program meets every week for six weeks, and then kids are invited to monthly meetings for them and their families afterward,” Horton said.
Hlavacek’s daughter, Francesca Hlavacek, 13, is part of Pickles Group.
She was in the fourth grade when she found out about her mother’s cancer diagnosis.
“At the time I didn’t really understand what cancer was,” Francesca said.
She first participated in Camp Kesem Northwestern, a two-week summer program at Northwestern University that supports children through their parents’ cancer journey.
With Pickles, though, Francesca feels more of a connection with the other children.
“Pickles is different because you’re with people you can see on a daily basis, and more often,” she said. “Pickles is closer and everyone is nearby, so it’s easier to connect with people.”
Outside of their weekly meetings, Francesca and other children in Pickles also meet up in their free time. They like to grab ice cream.
“One of my friends lives pretty close to me so we do stuff occasionally,” Francesca said. “Since we’ve been doing this for a while, we’re all starting to get more comfortable with each other.”
Since the launch, Pickles has received donations from nearly 800 donors and more than 50 people who want to volunteer with the organization.
Pickles Group now serves 30 children from the northern suburbs with hopes to expand to other Chicagoland communities — and beyond — in the spring of 2022.
Horton said the group has started discussions with potential partners in Atlanta, Phoenix, Minnesota, Philadelphia and Raleigh.
She said the program is universal for children navigating the complex and emotional time that could include death. One of Pickles’ founders, Ned Smith, died in September 2021 after his “journey” with a rare brain cancer.
“The program design will bring groups of kids together at the same time who can go through and build connections together,” Horton said. “These small groups will meet for a shorter period and they’ll go through the activities (our program director) facilitates with the founding families. We’ll offer outings and opportunities to connect after that so the kiddos can be included in that even after they’ve gone through the initial process.”
Kelsy Mora, the chief clinical program officer, was recruited by the founding families to help lead group work with the Pickles children.
She collaborated with the families on the program’s framework.
“We brought the families together as a group and I facilitated so we could all get on the same page with our purpose, goal, rules and expectations for keeping everyone safe, happy and healthy,” Mora said. “I had a lot of fun activities planned that would get the kids talking about their parents’ cancer diagnosis.”
She workshopped the methods on the first eight children, and through that experience they learned what would work best for the kids.
“Moving forward, I think the Pickles format will be a shorter cohort model where groups get to know each other and go through the program together in a curriculum-based way,” Mora said.
Horton said things have gone as planned since the launch and she’s excited for the future of Pickles Group.
“Overall, we have been thrilled with the outcomes of our first pilot program, which truly show that there is a need for kids to have a safe, inclusive, supportive space with peers who understand what it’s like to have a parent or caregiver with cancer,” she said. “Our biggest challenge is recruiting families who are navigating a major health challenge at home. We want them to know this resource is there, and make it as accessible and welcoming as possible.”
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Azhley Rodriguez is a sophomore studying digital journalism and English with a concentration in writing at Dominican University. On Dominican's campus she has written for her school's newspaper, the Dominican Star, covering stories on diversity on campus. Follow Azhley on Twitter @AzhleyRodriguez.