´MY KIDS´ ARE ALL OUR KIDS...

´MY KIDS´ ARE ALL OUR KIDS...

Miriam Yocheved Isenberg knew what it meant for a family when a parent was seriously ill.

The Chicago-area woman - a mother, special education teacher and the wife of Rabbi Jerold Isenberg, chancellor of Hebrew Theological College- became ill with Hodgkin´s disease when she was in her early 20s and the couple had two young sons. She went into remission, but later contracted a variety of other diseases, including breast cancer.

About three years ago, although she was not sick at the time, "she said, I have an idea for a chesed (kindness or compassion) project that really needs to be done," Rabbi Isenberg recalled recently. "She started working on it."

But Miriam Isenberg had become ill again with metastatic disease and died in 2009. "Her last week in the hospital, she said, I really want you to make this happen," Isenberg says. But because her death came sooner than expected, he only had a very general idea of what the project was.

Meeting with communal organizations and sketching out her ideas for the project, Isenberg soon partnered with Rabbi Shlomo Crandall, director of Chai Lifeline Midwest, an organization that provides various services to Jewish children with life-threatening diseases.

Last month, Chai Lifeline´s newest project - created through Miriam Isenberg´s vision - was launched. It´s called My Kids - the MY stands for Miriam Yocheved - and, in Isenberg´s words, "it´s Chai Lifeline when the sick individual is a parent, not a child. That´s the easiest way to describe it."

Crandall recalls that when Rabbi Isenberg first came to him to discuss the idea, "he said, all the programming (Chai Lifeline) does is when the child is sick. What do we do for families when the parent is sick? When mom or dad isn´t well, life just ain´t the same. Who takes care of the kids? There are issues around respite, homework, meals, lunches for school, money issues, insurance issues - a zillion details."

Isenberg asked Crandall, "Is there an organization for that? When he heard there wasn´t, he said, let´s create one," Crandall says. Seed money for the project came from the Isenberg family.

My Kids was inaugurated with an event featuring a talk by David Pelcovitz, a Yeshiva University professor of education and psychiatry. More than 200 people attended, Crandall says. He told the audience that My Kids will "provide a web of comfort around children and teens impacted by the illness of a parent."

The services it will offer include counseling; tutoring; meal and transportation assistance; insurance advocacy; online communities; family days, holiday parties and recreational events, all designed with children and teens in mind. Perhaps even more important, it will connect parents and children with others in the same situation through a program called Family2Family. (To contact My Kids, call 847-763-1818 or e-mail scrandall@chailifeline.org.)

One area in which Isenberg hopes My Kids will contribute is in helping families continue their typical routines. When his wife first became ill, "both of us were from Chicago and we had families here, so we had a lot of support," he says. "We were able to raise our kids to be great guys" who are now married and raising their own families.

But Miriam Isenberg, who reached out to others in similar situations, "identified some families who were having difficulties. They didn´t have that gift of family to be supportive," he says.

No previous organization, Isenberg says, "has ever really addressed the issue of focusing on the kids at home. Miriam wanted to make sure there was stability" in families even though a parent was ill. "There has to be someone there on a constant basis, not a different person this day, another person another day helping out with cooking, with homework. By supporting the family, you´re also giving the best possible support to the ill person."

Crandall adds that children or teens with a seriously ill parent can become angry, depressed, confused and sad. Their school performance may be affected and they may feel isolated from their friends. Changes in daily routine can be disturbing and children may feel confused and uprooted as the family directs much of its attention to the sick parent. Or, as the organization´s literature puts it: "When a parent becomes ill, a child´s world is in tatters. My Kids puts it back together."

"This is exactly what Miriam wanted," Isenberg says. "She would be so happy about how Rabbi Crandall and Chai Lifeline adopted it. Everyone who knew her, says (of the program), that´s so Miriam."

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