November 21, 2018

For Kids With Serious Illnesses, a Night at the Ballpark

Hannah Ginsberg’s epilepsy has been compounded by chronic headaches since she was 14. She deals with the pain by lying down, putting ice on her forehead or going to sleep. There is not much more she can do. 

Nevertheless, the outgoing 18-year-old has an optimistic attitude. She is passionate about the arts and hopes to become an animator. She credits Camp Simcha Special, a Chai Lifeline overnight camp, with helping her become reconciled to her condition. “The people you meet here will stick with you through thick and thin,” she said.

Chai Lifeline is an international organization that helps families cope with pediatric illness, loss or trauma through insurance assistance, family-friendly activities, summer camp experiences and more. Founded in New York’s Orthodox community by Rabbi Simcha Scholar in 1986, Chai Lifeline serves Jews of all denominations and backgrounds. The organization has a Los Angeles-based regional office serving California and surrounding states.

On July 30, Hannah and her parents and brother were among more than 50 families affected by cancer or other chronic illnesses that gathered at Dodger Stadium wearing T-shirts that said, “Root Root Root with Chai Lifeline.” The goal? Forgetting about their problems, if only for one evening.

“Everyone needs a break from dealing with everything that’s going on with life, so why not go to a Dodger game?” said Kayla Kamornick, who, in 2013, lost her father to lymphoma. 

Also in attendance was West Hills mother Paz Scharf and her son, Aviv, who has Burkitt lymphoma. In November 2016, when he was 10, doctors discovered cancer in Aviv’s lymph nodes. By the time he started chemotherapy, his face had swollen and become deformed. But at the baseball game, Aviv displayed no signs of illness. His face looked normal as he plopped on his mother’s lap and described the evening at Chavez Ravine as “amazing,” though the Dodgers lost to the Milwaukee Brewers, 5-2. 

Aviv recently spent two weeks at Camp Simcha, which, like Camp Simcha Special, is a Chai Lifeline summer camp in the Catskill Mountains that caters to children with cancer and other blood disorders at no cost to the families. Aviv took full advantage, going zip lining and swimming, and enjoying candle-making. 

“I think they are angels, because they understand when someone is sick in the family, it affects the whole family,” Scharf said. “I really don’t know what I’d do without [Chai Lifeline].”

When Kamornick’s father was sick, Chai Lifeline invited her to events to help her through the challenging period. Kamornick, however, was already a teenager, and she decided to volunteer with the organization instead. She spent four years as a big sister to the sibling of a sick girl, which is consistent with the mission of the organization: to serve children suffering from cancer and other chronic illnesses while also supporting the child’s family members. 

“They care so much and get involved and really become a part of your family in every aspect,” said Kamornick, 20, a student at Stern College for Women. “They send people not only for the kids who are sick but for the siblings.”

Another family that was helped by Chai Lifeline is that of Isabella Zahabian, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor almost a decade ago when she was just 13 months old. 

“Oh, God, it was the worst,” her mother, Ilana Zahabian, said. “Honestly, everything [was] a blur. I was pregnant and hormonal.” Having to deal with her daughter’s surgery and then chemotherapy “was just very hard.”

Easing the situation were volunteers from Chai Lifeline’s big brother and big sister program who have been active in Isabella’s life and the lives of her three siblings. “Chai Lifeline has been so helpful,” Zahabian said.

Isabella, who will turn 10 soon, is going into fifth grade at Hawthorne School, and today she is healthy, although she lost her vision in one eye. There is always the chance the tumor could grow back, but for now, the family is grateful she is doing well and for the support they have received from Chai Lifeline. The organization, among other things, sent Isabella on a free trip to Orlando, Fla., where she visited Disney World. Meanwhile, her mother has enjoyed the camaraderie of other parents of sick children at events like spa days.

“These gifts are essential for helping families dealing with serious illnesses
feel a little more normal,” Zahabian said. “They have a lot of wonderful events. They are amazing.”