Ailing kids connect with Oriole heroes

Through Cockeysville-based program, children fighting cancer take in a game

June 08, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the sun

In a quiet spot beneath the stands, just a short walk from the Orioles dugout, 11-year-old Zachary Peacock-Davis began throwing questions at his favorite player.

"How long," he wanted to know, "have you been playing baseball?"

Second baseman Brian Roberts said he has been playing since he was 5 - Zachary's age when he started - and that answer made the Middle River boy smile.

By the time he was through with the interview, Zachary would have material for an article that other young cancer patients might read. And he would shyly offer Roberts a good-luck charm for what would turn out to be one of his best games of the season.

Zachary - first diagnosed with cancer last year, and then with a second form of the disease just a week before his visit to Camden Yards - is among the youngsters who benefit from the Cockeysville-based Cool Kids Campaign. The program not only offers kids fighting cancer field trips to baseball games and other destinations, it also publishes a newsletter in which children from across the nation contribute stories, letters and poems about their experiences dealing with the disease.

"I want to tell my friends, `I got to write a story about Brian Roberts, and they didn't,'" Zach said as he prepared to interview the player on a recent Wednesday evening.

Cool Kids Connection, believed to be the first publication of its kind, is distributed to every hospital in the country with a children's oncology unit, said program director Sharon Perfetti.

Although Perfetti does most of the actual editing, figure skating champion and Harford County resident Kimmie Meissner helps select what goes into the publication. "All of the poems and stories are a good read," Meissner said. "It's tough to choose the best stories."

Meissner, who said she is inspired to help the children in part because she lost a friend three years ago to leukemia, plans to skate in a fundraiser for the program in August.

The Cool Kids Campaign also provides such treats as care packages for patients, lunches delivered to hospitals on Fridays, and end-of-chemotherapy cakes.

Also, community members or organizations can help by cooking meals for the Cool Kids Cafe. To participate, children and adults sign up to host a dinner or luncheon to help raise money for the program.

"We try to involve siblings and parents when we can, because the child's cancer affects the entire family," said Perfetti, a co-founder of Cool Kids.

The program is part of the Belanger-Federico Foundation, which raises money for cancer research. The organization was established in 2004 in memory of Mark Belanger, a former Orioles shortstop who died of lung cancer at age 54, and Susannah Cockey Federico, who died of leukemia at 66. Perfetti approached co-founders Robert Belanger, the late Oriole's son, and Christopher Federico, the son of Susannah, about adding a branch that would include children.

Bringing the kids to a baseball game through another program for kids, Buses for Baseball, seemed natural, Belanger said.

"Not only do I have ties to baseball, but what goes better together than baseball and kids?" he said. "And whatever little bit we can give to these kids and their families, we want to try to do."

Being able to meet the Orioles meant a lot to Zachary, said his mother, 33-year-old Heather Davis of Middle River. "He needs things to look forward to that will distract him from thinking about his illness," she said.

During the visit to Camden Yards before the Orioles' May 23 game against the Toronto Blue Jays, about a dozen cancer patients and their families met and mingled with Orioles Jay Gibbons, Adam Loewen, Melvin Mora and Corey Patterson, along with Roberts.

The kids - some wearing surgical masks - watched batting practice, received autographs and took photographs. Later, they watched the game.

The group of children included 10-year-old Mackenzie Stuck of Mount Airy, who recently underwent surgery for a brain tumor - and was, her mother said, temporarily unable to walk or feed herself.

"Being able to come out here and mingle with other kids helped her to regain her confidence," said the girl's mother, Sue Stuck.

Roberts said he hoped the visit brightened the day for the children.

"Any time I can help a child put aside the hard things that go on in their life, I try to do that," said Roberts.

This year, Roberts started "Brian's Bracelet Program" to benefit the University of Maryland Hospital for Children.

Dressed in an Orioles T-shirt and cap, Zachary plopped into a chair in a room near the Orioles dugout for his interview with Roberts.

One of his questions for Roberts, who had open heart surgery at age 5, was "What do you want other kids to know about your experience that would help them get through their time at the hospital?"

"You have to be positive," Roberts answered.

After the interview, Zachary told Roberts that he had been diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) on his birthday in November 2006, and was then diagnosed with acute myelogenous a week earlier.

The youngster then asked Roberts if he could give him a blue bracelet that said Strength over ALL. "I understand if you don't want to wear it, but can you take it?" the boy asked

Before Zachary could finish asking, Roberts was pulling the bracelet onto his wrist.

"I'll tell you what," Roberts said. "I will wear your bracelet, and I won't take it off. And would you wear one of my bracelets?"

Zachary, beaming, promised that he would.

That night, Roberts got three hits in three at bats, including an RBI single, and walked twice. On the base paths, he used some quick thinking to distract his opponents and allow a teammate to pull off a rare steal of home plate as the O's beat the Blue Jays, 5-2.

The next day, Zachary checked into Sinai Hospital to begin another round of chemotherapy.

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