When Jon Wagner-Holtz’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, he felt like his world had been turned upside down. It was 1991, he was 9 years old, and the woman who had always cared for him was struggling with the side effects of chemotherapy. With his dad traveling frequently for work at the time, Wagner-Holtz felt scared and alone.
His parents sent him to a therapist, but the therapist advised him to stay strong for his mom. The kids at school knew his mother was sick, but some made insensitive, even cruel, comments to him about cancer. “I had no one I could talk to about what was going on,” says Wagner-Holtz, now 34.
After his mother recovered, Wagner-Holtz wanted to help prevent other kids in his situation from experiencing the same feelings of isolation. So at age 11, he walked into the Southern California office of the Susan G. Komen Foundation and asked, “What are you doing for kids?” A doctor there responded with a question: “What do you want to do?” Wagner-Holtz said he wanted to start a hotline for children whose parents had cancer.
With help from his mom and money and technical support from Komen, Wagner-Holtz set up a 24-hour hotline in his bedroom and distributed flyers at oncologists’ offices to advertise the new service. For the first six weeks, Wagner-Holtz answered the phone on his own. But as more and more kids started calling, many of them volunteered to help out. Eventually, Wagner-Holtz and his “clients” decided to form a youth-led support group and interviewed licensed therapists who would be willing to watch over the group and offer guidance. Soon after, Kids Konnected was born.
The organization, which received nonprofit status in 1997, has a simple mission: to support children and teens whose parents are battling cancer or have died from the disease. “Kids often take on a lot of responsibility and feel like they have to act strong, as if it’s not bothering them,” says Mandy McGowen, executive director of Kids Konnected. (Wagner-Holtz, who still remains involved, decided to hand over the reins of the organization when he went to college, and the group has had several executive directors since.) “But when they talk about their feelings with other kids going through the same thing, it makes a huge difference.”
Over the years, Kids Konnected has expanded its reach. The hotline now serves about 1,000 children nationwide each year, and staffers send “Hope the Bear Care Packages”—containing a teddy bear, blanket, and book about coping with cancer—to 250 kids annually. Every summer, 50 children attend a Kids Konnected camp in Big Bear, California, with families paying on a sliding scale or nothing at all.
But the Kids Konnected support groups are still the heart of the organization. More than 400 children, ages 5 to 18, participate in seven groups offered in California and Nevada. And support groups in other states—including Illinois, Montana, and Pennsylvania—have teamed up with Kids Konnected, even though they’re not officially a part of the nonprofit.
To McGowen, there’s no doubt that these meetings can change a child’s life. She was particularly moved by the story of a third-grader whose mother had died of cancer. The boy had such a hard time discussing what had happened to his mom that when people asked about her, “he came up with some really fantastic stories, sometimes saying she was on vacation,” says McGowen. But after attending a Kids Konnected support group regularly, he felt confident enough to do a presentation at school about his mother’s cancer and how he remembered her.
“He found the strength and the words from his group,” says McGowen, “and was able to carry them out into the world.”
How to Make a Difference
- Fund a service. For $25, you can provide a child with a Hope the Bear Care Package; $50 will pay for a child to attend a support group for a month. Go to kidskonnected.org/donate to find out more.
- Contribute supplies. Visit the “wish list” for Kids Konnected support groups at kidskonnected.org/support-group-wish-list and pledge to donate art supplies such as markers and scissors or coupons and gift certificates for pizza.
- Donate while you shop. Linking your Amazon account to Kids Konnected ensures that a portion of the money you spend goes to the organization. Visit smile.amazon.com, scroll down to “Pick your own charitable organization,” and type in “Kids Konnected.” Enter through smile.amazon.com whenever you shop.