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Jewish Journal

Chai Lifeline helps families facing life-threatening diseases

by Nancy Sokoler Steiner

April 17, 2008 | 6:00 pm

Participants in the Chai Lifeline Spa Day try yoga at Exhale Spa in Santa Monica

Participants in the Chai Lifeline Spa Day try yoga at Exhale Spa in Santa Monica

Last August, Lori Paulsen's 4-year-old son, Aaron, was diagnosed with Wilms' tumor, a rare form of kidney cancer. Soon afterward, a friend offered to call Chai Lifeline on her behalf.

Paulsen quickly got a message from caseworker Samantha Raich, who was calling to see how Chai Lifeline could help the family -- from hospital visits to help navigating insurance to keeping Aaron and his brother entertained.

Paulsen was too distracted to return the calls in those early days after the diagnosis. But Raich kept calling back.

"She didn't let me fall through the cracks," Paulsen said.

Once they connected, Raich visited Paulsen's house to offer support and information. She also began coming to Aaron's chemotherapy sessions at UCLA, bringing a sympathetic ear, sandwiches for the family and gifts for Aaron and his older brother. "She has not missed a single session," Paulsen said.

One of the most devastating experiences any parent can imagine is having a child diagnosed with a life-threatening illness or debilitating disease. Not only do parents in this situation fear for their child's survival, but they must face a host of other challenges: How will they meet their child's emotional needs? What impact will the illness have on siblings? How will they deal with insurance paperwork? And, even, how will they manage to get dinner on the table?

For Jewish families, Chai Lifeline provides the answers to many of these concerns. The organization offers a broad spectrum of support services to help with the logistical, psychological, social and recreational needs of families with a seriously ill child. All programs are provided at no cost to the families. Founded in New York's Orthodox community by Rabbi Simcha Scholar in 1986, the organization now has four regional offices in the United States and a presence in Canada, Europe and Israel. The Los Angeles-based West Coast Sohacheski Family Center opened in 1999. With a staff of only three, the office currently provides services to about 300 families of all Jewish denominations. The program depends on foundation and individual donations, as well as volunteer participation.

The gamut of services includes counseling, meal provision, transportation assistance, in-hospital respite, insurance support and an art therapy program for siblings. Chai Lifeline also hosts Jewish holiday celebrations and organizes family excursions to such destinations as Dodger Stadium and Knott's Berry Farm.

For Passover, the organization hosts an annual ceramics party, where ill children and their siblings paint a seder plate, kiddush cup or other Judaic item. Volunteers deliver the finished pieces in time for the holiday. Chai Lifeline also provides gift cards to help families absorb the extra expenses associated with Passover, and special ones for use as afikomen gifts. For those families with a child currently in the throes of treatment, the organization delivers a full meal and all the seder accoutrements.

Pico-Robertson resident Leah Hill was grateful when Chai Lifeline services became available in Los Angeles. Her daughter Tali, now 18, suffers a variety of health problems including seizures, mild cerebral palsy and hearing loss.

Hill said that whenever her daughter is hospitalized, someone from Chai Lifeline visits the hospital each day, bearing kosher meals for the whole family. Even when Tali is back home, a Chai Lifeline teen volunteer visits her each week.

Tali has also attended Chai Lifeline's Camp Simcha Special in Glen Spey, N.Y., where children with intensive medical needs can enjoy a summer camp experience. (Camp Simcha provides a similar experience for children with cancer.) Tali's two sisters have participated in a retreat for siblings.

Hill shared her thoughts while at the Exhale Spa in Santa Monica, where she was one of about 40 women taking a rare break from responsibilities to participate in Chai Lifeline's Seasons of Respite program. The quarterly series provides one-day retreats for mothers with ill children.

"These women have so many demands," said Randi Grossman, the West Coast center's director. "Seasons of Respite programs allow them to get some stress relief and meet with other women who are facing similar challenges."

Marilyn Sohacheski, whose family endowed Chai Lifeline's West Coast office and the Seasons of Respite program, watched with satisfaction as women chatted animatedly over lunch. "Support is so important. Friends mean well but can't provide the same kind of support [as a peer]," she said.

Yorba Linda resident Stella Eliezre said she wouldn't miss the spa day. "It's nice that someone worries about our emotional and physical well-being," she said.

In 2005, Eliezre's son was diagnosed, at the age of 19, with acute myeloid leukemia. When he was hospitalized for an extended period of time, Eliezre called Chai Lifeline for advice on how to enhance his hospital stay.

"Before I knew it, Samantha was at the hospital," Eliezre said. "She clicked with my son, and has been an ongoing contact and source of support for our whole family."

Like the other women at the spa, Eliezre couldn't give enough praise to Chai Lifeline. "Hopefully, you'll never need it. But if you do, it's here in the most professional, loving and nurturing manner."

For more information, call (310) 274-6331.

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