Jimmy Fund Clinic family festival is a day of hope

For Leona O’Neill, 2, an encounter with gorillas—rather than an infusion chair—was the perfect way to spend a recent Sunday.

Leona, who was diagnosed at eight months with a brain tumor, was one of more than 600 current and past pediatric patients from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Jimmy Fund Clinic who visited Franklin Park Zoo for the 29th annual Jimmy Fund Clinic Family Festival last month. Surrounded by their parents, siblings, and other relatives, as well as many doctors and nurses from the Jimmy Fund Clinic, attendees enjoyed meeting up with animals as well as face painters, caricature artists, and Disney princesses.

There were also photo booths, a bubble show, carousel rides, music, and a picnic lunch to enjoy, along with a 10,000-square foot playground to romp in. The Zoo was open only to Dana-Farber on Sept. 18, which made it extra safe and comforting for families like Leona’s who have been restricted from large group activities during their treatment and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This was the first time in years that we were able to enjoy a stress-free outing with the whole family in a kid-oriented, public space,” says Kate O’Neill, Leona’s mom. “My 4-year-old, Calvin, enjoyed showing his little sister the giraffes and gorillas. Leona had a great time dancing whenever we got close to a speaker, and really enjoyed the butterfly house. She loved the performer with bubbles and music most of all.”

As much fun as the festival is for families in the throes of treatment, it is unique in another way for those who finished up years ago and return year after year to see old friends and clinicians.

“The survivors can’t get enough of it,” says Lisa Scherber, director of Patient and Family Programs at Dana-Farber and organizer of the festival since its inception. “It’s the only time they are surrounded by people who understand this journey. We have parents who are volunteers—both grieving parents and those whose kids survived—and teen survivors who have gone through it and want to give back.”

Scherber and her staff from the Jimmy Fund Clinic were also among those volunteers making the day run smoothly for 3,000 attendees. Darren Johnson, PA, a physician assistant in the clinic, delighted in the shouts of “Hi Dr. Darren!” he received from clinic patients while helping out at his first-ever Family Festival.

“Nothing is more memorable than the genuine joy beaming from the faces of the kids,” Johnson says of the event. “I especially loved watching patients interact with their siblings again. In the COVID world, siblings are very limited from coming into the clinic, but we all know the incredibly important role they play. This was highlighted at the Family Festival.”

Johnson was impressed at the logistics involved, which included making sure each family received a picnic blanket and T-shirt upon arrival. This was due in large part to Scherber and the planning team, along with funds graciously raised by One Mission and Team ROAR in the Pan-Mass Challenge, and other supporters: The Caroline Mae and Grace Headley Mollenhauer Fund, The Zachary Tiernan & Cameron Hawkins Fund, The Everything Great Fund, the Carmen Family, and the GBL Foundation.

“The sheer complexity and magnitude of the festival, and the effort and resources involved, was amazing,” says Johnson. “It speaks to the passion the planning team has in ensuring the patients have bright moments in a sea of dark times,”

Leona’s mom agreed.

“It’s hard to imagine coming out the other side of an infant brain cancer diagnosis,” says O’Neill. “It’s nice to see other big and little survivors happy and running around.”

Help support Dana-Farber patients by joining The Dana-Farber Campaign, our ambitious, multi-year fundraising effort to prevent, treat, and defy cancer. The Dana-Farber Campaign will accelerate the Institute’s strategic priorities by supporting revolutionary science, extraordinary care, and exceptional expertise. As a community, we have the power to create a more hopeful, cancer-free future—in Boston and around the world. Together, we can defy cancer at every turn. Learn more about The Dana-Farber Campaign and how you can get involved at DefyCancer.org.