By Sue Wambolt, Contributing Writer
Hudson – For John and Zenaide (Zee) Swenson, “Andrew's Helpful Hands” is a living legacy to their son, Andrew, and his desire to help others. At the age of 2, Andrew was diagnosed with ALL (a type of leukemia) and the Swensons” lives were turned upside down. Life centered around two years of hospital visits, admission stays and chemotherapy. Just two months after completing treatment, Andrew developed testicular cancer. He was just 4 years old. Following another regimen of chemotherapy and radiation, the leukemia returned and Andrew needed a bone marrow transplant.
With the news of the bone marrow transplant, Zee quit her job to spend more time with Andrew. Two months into treatment, John's company decided to reduce his pay ostensibly to “make it easier” for him to take care of Andrew's older brother, Jonathan. Between medical co-payments, gas to drive back and forth to the hospital in Boston and mortgage payments, the Swensons were in financial trouble and their home went into pre-foreclosure.
In 2000, in an attempt to help the Swensons keep their home, Zee's brother, John, organized a fundraiser he called the Gold Ribbon Holiday Reception. Zee and her husband told Andrew about the fundraiser and the importance of helping others in need. Andrew responded by saying that he wanted to help raise money for a few of his friends who were in the ICU with him so that their mothers could stay with them in the hospital just as his mom was able to do.
“I have time,” Andrew said. “I's here every day and I can help with everything. I's helpful.”
At the age of three, Andrew taught a 14-year-old old buddy from the hospital how to get into the spinal position so that he wouldn's hurt. When in the ICU during his bone marrow transplant, Andrew taught an 11 year old how to take pills so that she wouldn's throw up the horrible tasting medicine – he said that's “worse you know.” Andrew was just 4 and a half at the time. Always thinking about others, Andrew made cards with his handprint on them (the “High 5” card) to give to the new kids in the “neighborhood” so that they had a gift when they came into the ICU. The “new kids” would always leave the ICU before Andrew.
As the children left the ICU, Andrew was never sad.
“They will remember me, Mommy, because they have the “High 5″ card that I gave them and they are my friends,” he would say.
In April 2002, just a few months before Andrew passed away, Andrew's Helpful Hands (AHH) became an official 501 (c) (3) nonprofit charitable organization. Andrew was so proud to deliver the first check to a local child who was going through the bone marrow transplant process. With a huge smile, he looked at his parents and said, “This is so fun, who are we giving to next?”
AHH was set up to help the families of children undergoing bone marrow transplants. The nonprofit is set up to pay the family's creditor for their rent or mortgage payment (directly) for up to 12 months. This way, said Zee, the family does not need to worry about making the monthly payments and, at the same time, allows donors to know that their donations are going straight toward keeping families in their homes so that they can focus on what's important, their children. AHH is the only organization that provides financial assistance for more than just a “one time” payout. The organization spends an average of $22,000 per family said Zee.
“The bone marrow transplant process is a long process and it can be quite a while before the child can be reintroduced into public, and before the parent can return to work,” Zee said. “For children who have an autologous transplant (donate their own bone marrow/cells) it is usually 6 to 8 months before they return to public and for children who have an allogeneic transplant (bone marrow/cells from a related or unrelated donor) the wait is usually 8 to12 months.”
AHH raises money through two main fundraisers, the Leukemia Ride and Family BBQ (takes place on the first Sunday in June) and the Gold Ribbon Holiday Reception (held on the second Friday of December). On Saturday, April 28 there will be a “Fashionable Tea Party” at the Hudson Elks, 19 Park St., from 1 to 4 p.m. Volunteers will be dressing up as the famous American Girl dolls and will be signing autographs, chatting with younger guests and helping with crafts. This event is being sponsored by Dragonflies Boutique and AHH. Diane Mulherin, the owner of the boutique, will be making all the clothes for the fashion show portion of the Tea Party. Tickets will be $15 per person, $5 for grandparents and $3 for children under three.
“Our plans and hopes are to be able to raise more awareness and financial support so that we can consistently help three families every year,” Zee said. “Right now we have been able to help one to two families per year.”
To find out more about Andrews Helpful Hands or to purchase tickets for the Fashionable Tea Party visit www.AndrewsHelpfulHands.org.