For most families, the holiday season is a joyful, magical time filled with gifts from Santa, trips to see family and friends, and so much more. For others, the holidays take on a new feeling when families are dealing with sick spouses, aging parents or coping children. This is where Howard Hand in Hand at St. Joseph’s/Candler steps in – not just during the holidays, but year-round. In partnership with SJ/C, Howard Hand in Hand provides support, education and guidance to children and teens with a family member facing a life-threatening disease. Free of cost, this program helps children cope with and process their thoughts and feelings – often fear, sadness, anger, confusion – about how life has changed for them and their families because of an illness or disease.
Enter Skye Cossio. Skye is the social worker spearheading the Howard Hand in Hand support program. She’s taking Hand in Hand to new levels by growing the program through technological advancements and by facilitating support systems between children of the program. She now has extended capabilities to counsel children through a new video chat service. When the child is missing their ill mom at dinner because she isn’t at the table, or when dad has to tuck them into bed instead of mom, Skye can be there digitally to talk them through it. Skye also created a portal for peer support where she can facilitate connections between children in similar situations, but different geographical locations. She continues to work on programs and resources to grow the program as the pool of families in need increases year over year.
We caught up with Skye and asked her to share some stories of the families she’s been working with recently. Here’s what she had to say:
I am working with four new families this holiday season through the Howard Hand in Hand program. All of these families have mothers who are ill and fathers who are fortunately present in their lives to help take care of the children. These children range anywhere from 2 to 13 years old. Let me try and set the stage for you – while mom focuses on her treatment and road to recovery, dad is resuming his role as a father and husband; he is gaining his wife’s duties as mother and caretaker; and he is now in charge of all the inevitable needs of children ranging from a young toddler to an emerging teenager. In between all of the cooking, cleaning and chauffeuring, dad is also now in charge of shopping for the holidays – he is swamped and clueless. He is also in constant thought of: “What if my wife doesn’t make it? What if this is our new normal? What would life be like without her?”
It isn’t uncommon for me to step in and help not only the children cope with their parent’s illness, but also the spouse. I started by asking dad, “What do your kids want for the holidays this year?” Dad pondered and found himself stumped. With so much on his mind and his plate, I wasn’t surprised! I worked with dad to investigate – look through their rooms, tell me their interests and let me know if anything comes up in conversations. In the midst of his wife’s treatment, one dad received a note home from his tween’s gym teacher saying she suggested his daughter get a sports bra. Dad doesn’t know how to shop for those things! I made sure I was there to support him and to talk through how to take on these motherly duties, some of which may be a little uncomfortable, but need to be addressed now to prepare for the “what ifs” of their situation.
I am proud and so excited to say that the nurses of St. Joseph’s/Candler have rallied together to bring Christmas to these four families – four families who may or may not have Christmas all together again. The nurses have graciously bought gifts for the 2- to 13-year-old children who see Christmas as the only light this holiday season. We will try our best to make this light as bright as we can! We plan to dress in our holiday best (or tackiest!) and deliver the gifts to these families. At the end of the day, it isn’t even about the physical gifts, but facilitating togetherness and a festive atmosphere in an otherwise dark and challenging time.
I am also working with a military family who has a 6- and 2-year-old. They were assigned to the Savannah area, and soon after moving here, mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Similar to the four families I just told you about, dad had to resume the mom role. For this family, I provided my typical counseling to the children and also pulled in outsourced support services to help dad as well. The oldest child was not yet registered for the daycare lottery, so I worked with a local support service that helped us find not only a daycare, but a daycare that had mom and dad’s blessing. One of the children also developed a speech impediment because mom didn’t have enough energy to converse with the child during her treatment. I again sourced a support service to find the child a local speech therapist. For the holidays, I found a local photographer who is donating her services to take professional photos of the family. I am also working with a local author that is donating her time to help mom write letters for her children to open at milestones in their lives, just in case she can’t be there physically to celebrate with them.
Another amazing thing we were able to do for this family was to send them on an all-inclusive paid trip to anywhere in the country through a partnership with the Jack and Jill Foundation. The foundation graciously provided a two-day, three-night vacation for four where the family would stay in the nicest suite, dine at the best table in the restaurant and not have to worry about cancer or expenses. This trip will be something the entire family will fondly look back on and cherish for the rest of their lives.
It brings me great joy to bring some sort of “normal” to these children and families during such a heart wrenching and challenging time in their lives, and I can only continue to do so through the generous donations to the Howard Hand in Hand program. To date, I’ve been able to counsel over 77 children and work with over 157 families.
To learn more about Howard Hand in Hand, or to donate, please visit Howard Hand in Hand on sjchs.org.