It may seem like something small—making a snack, helping with homework, watching a movie—but for a family that is affected by cancer, it makes a huge difference.
When cancer strikes, one of the most common phrases said is “let me know how I can help.” But three years ago, one local girl went beyond mere words and sprang into action in a simple, yet powerful way, alleviating the burden that accompanies a cancer diagnosis for families across Long Island.
Lizzie Stiles was in eighth grade when she found out her neighbor’s two-and-a-half-year-old daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. So, she offered to babysit, free of charge. It was a simple proposal, but for Katie Gallardo, it meant the world.
“It was a huge help,” said Gallardo, a Syosset resident. “[I had] a child who was on multiple chemotherapies, and two babies. It was very difficult, but having that extra set of hands to support and help distract was a huge blessing.”
Stiles saw the impact she was able to have on the Gallardo household, and soon realized that many other families affected by cancer had a need for babysitting services. When she transferred to Our Lady of Mercy Academy in Syosset, she found herself surrounded by other classmates eager to help her in her mission and was able to launch Helping Hand Babysitting in 2012.
In the past three years, Helping Hand has provided free babysitting for at least 20 families affected by cancer in Long Island. Each family is assigned four babysitters to help build up relationships and consistency, and the girls go out in pairs to help with homework, laundry, making meals and various other needs. All the families involved have an immediate family member, most often a child or parent, who has been diagnosed with cancer. All they need to sign up for services is a recommendation letter from the primary oncologist.
The stability and support Helping Hand babysitters provide make a huge difference for families suffering through the tumultuous uncertainty of cancer.
“We can’t count the thank yous people are sending back. They’re so grateful for the support and taken aback,” said Stiles. “Especially at this time when they’re so inundated with new things, we bring a sense of stability. It’s the same faces and level of comfort, with really respectful, empathetic young ladies.”
But it’s not just the families that benefit. The students involved with the program say it’s an amazing experience.
Junior Kayla Bjelke is from Levittown and started with Helping Hand last year.
“I like little kids and I like working with them. I think the whole program itself is a really good idea and I was really interested,” she said.
So far, Bjelke has taken away a lot from the program, including feeling valued and being able to help others.
“This experience has taught me responsibility and how much it really means to the parents because they get time off if they have things to do,” said Bjelke, adding that she would like to continue her involvement with Helping Hand throughout high school. “I’m able to help and play with the kids and I love that.”
Stiles has grown what was once a one-man show into an extracurricular powerhouse that runs out of Our Lady Of Mercy Academy. The club boasts 40 babysitters, with a total membership of 100 students who help in various capacities, including social media and outreach. All the girls are CPR-certified and most have been babysitting since middle school, said Stiles.
Senior Alessia Stacconi from Port Washington started babysitting with Helping Hand her sophomore year. She said while at first it was hard seeing how much the family she babysat for, who has a 5-year-old son in remission, has struggled, it soon became an eye-opening experience that taught her to be more grateful.
“It showed me how much people struggle through their everyday life and how cancer can affect not only the person, but the whole family and the atmosphere,” said Stacconi, who also babysits the boy’s two young sisters. “Even though the boy’s been through so much, he’s so happy. It made me realize how grateful I should be for the family and life, and that I can be so close to a family that’s been through so much.”
Westbury’s Samantha Hungerford is a member of the club’s social media committee, where she helps run the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts and helps publicize the club’s events and activities. The social media committee, along with the outreach committee, aims to help the club overcome one of their biggest challenges, which is getting the word about Helping Hand out to families who are struggling. She’s been involved with Helping Hand for two years and said the best part is seeing how much the club helps the families.
“You really see how many people are Win need and can benefit by this, and actually could really use this service,” Hungerford said. “Knowing they have a need and that we are able to help makes everything come together.”
Stiles, a senior, heads off to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania this fall to study math and science. In her absence, Helping Hand will continue to assist families across Long Island, and in the future, hopefully grow even further as she pursues a possible career in oncology.
“When I graduate, I want to pursue building this as a nonprofit. I see this as a foundation that can stand on its own and help families and get volunteers from high schools all over Long Island,” Stiles said. “Medicine often becomes impersonal, but this will set me apart. I’ll enjoy offering this great service to patients.”
Find out more about Helping Hand at helpinghandbabysitting.com or call 516-350-7387.
—Additional reporting by Jennifer Fauci