Giving kids with cancer a night of normalcy through A Prom To Remember

Since the last several posts all offered way more T.J. and cancer information than you ever wanted to know, today I’ll go in a different direction.  Having attended my second wedding in eight days (congrats Brandon and Christine!!), I gave the same medical updates to a completely new group of people – somehow, no one in the two weddings overlapped even though both couples have strong Jersey roots (OK, well, one had Dutch roots by way of Northern VA, details, details…).

Many of our friends at Sunday night’s festivities share several common bonds besides the Delaware Valley.  Almost all have lived here in South FL at one point.  We each have good and unprintable stories about being out with Brandon (and his brother Brian, who left all kinds of good material out of an otherwise touching best man speech).  And many of us are involved in A Prom To Remember.  What’s that?  Glad you asked…

Brandon Opre, newly married groom and, not surprisingly, another transplanted NJ native, started a charity for children affected by cancer called “A Prom To Remember” four years ago.  He was inspired by a teenager in San Diego with terminal cancer whose “wish” was to make it to his prom before cancer took that opportunity from him. Brandon began the charity in Fort Lauderdale to give teens in South Florida the ultimate Prom experience every May.

Most of us remember our prom as a teenage milestone; waking up the next day worrying about summer jobs, college applications, finals, and what the hell we were going to do with the rest of our lives.  Teens with cancer miss their proms because they are in the pediatric oncology unit getting treatments that make their hair fall out or immobilizes them.  Some don’t want to attend their prom – a high school social life is tough enough without having to be the one wearing a wig or using a walker.   They wake up the morning after a prom worrying about medications, therapy, and just what “the rest of our lives” really mean for them.  Some of those kids won’t make it to next year’s prom.  Some don’t make it to their prom this year.

The charity Brandon founded aims to give these teens an experience to look forward to all year, and a night they will never forget.  The kids get the white glove treatment – from salon appointments, to tuxes and dresses, to luxury transportation to and from the event.  It is held at the Ritz-Carlton, where they get to walk down a Hollywood-styled red carpet escorted by Dolphins players and cheerleaders, and into a themed party just for them and others sharing similar battles.  Everything is done first-class to give these kids the kind of night they’ve always dreamed about.

After being tangentially involved the first two years, I took on a more involved role this past year and currently serve on the Board of Directors.  The Prom has expanded into Cleveland and, this spring, Atlanta, with Brandon and the Board’s goal to help as many kids as possible experience this night. Part of my responsibilities – before I was slightly waylaid this fall – was to put together a “playbook”, so when there is opportunity to expand to other cities, we could do so quickly and with existing standard operating procedures.

During the last few months, I thought often about the prom night last year and the struggles pediatric oncology patients go through.  For several hours, it was any other night here in Broward County; a bunch of kids having a great time combined with a flashy event on Fort Lauderdale Beach –nothing new there.  Then I got to ride back on the limo bus to Broward General with the kids and their hospital chaperones, and saw the cars and concerned parents lined up as we pulled in (would you want your parents at your prom, cancer or not??  Didn’t think so…).

Assisting some of the attendees during the ride and coming off the bus, the vibe changed from “WOW that was amazing” to “I’m tired” and then kids asking each other if they had taken their meds at the right time. I planned a Great Adventure trip coming home from my prom, while these kids were looking out to make sure their friends took medications needed to stay alive. My parents made sure I got to Chad’s house safely with a phone call (way back when I had hair), and these parents couldn’t wait to see their kids, partially to ask how the night went, but mostly to reassure themselves their kids were OK for another day. Looks of concerned relief were everywhere, and said as much about the night as the “normal” teenage behavior had just hours earlier.

Thinking about these kids and the small contribution I make towards easing their burdens, even if it’s just a momentary increase in quality of life, reminds me of two things.  First, my situation isn’t all that bad in the bigger picture.  Second, there’s a lot more I can do to help others once I get this thing beat.

So in celebrating a wedding of two friends, I got to see all the people Brandon has brought together for something much greater than, say, Penn State football games at The Parrot Lounge. That perspective renews my confidence I will overcome my challenge, so I can help others with theirs.  Besides – who doesn’t want to go to Prom every year?  My tux is ready for May 10th…

For more information, visit www.apromtoremember.org or reach T.J. at Patient1@tjsharpe.com.

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