Cancer changes everything for patients and their families. Nick Arquette learned this at age 11 when his mother, Sally, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her diagnosis and treatment journey brought on many emotions for Nick, including anxiety, embarrassment, isolation, and pain. Nick eventually lost his mother to the disease at age 16. Nearly twenty years later, Nick was looking to honor his mother’s memory and did so by founding Walk with Sally (WWS), a nonprofit focusing on individualized mentorship for families impacted by cancer. Since its inception in 2005, WWS has grown to a thriving organization serving over 115 children in 34 cities throughout Los Angeles County and over 1,050 people are receiving program support each year.
WWS believes that no child should walk alone in the face of a loved one’s cancer journey. Dependent children are uniquely impacted when a parent or sibling has cancer. They witness the physical manifestations of the disease and its treatment and their routines and relationships are disrupted by treatment schedules, emergency medical visits, and hospitalizations. WWS understands these difficulties and creates hope, healing and a supportive community through individualized mentoring, which empowers children and transforms the lives of those impacted by cancer.
At WWS, the mentoring program is a minimum one year commitment of 6-8 one-on-one hours per month between a child age 7-17 and an adult who has been impacted by cancer. Mentors attend WWS’s one-day training course, which includes everything from best mentoring practices and guidance on child development, grief, and loss to storytelling and self-expression. WWS mentors and mentees typically develop close relationships that last beyond the one year commitment, in fact our average “Friendship” lasts over 2 years. Mentors supply encouragement and emotional support for children who may suddenly find themselves with sudden feelings of anger, anxiety, sadness or resentment. Children often have guilt around these emotions and experience difficulty in communicating them with their parents, but may share these feelings and ask questions of their mentors more freely (Binay, Armaly, & Swieter, 2017). Mentees describe the impact their mentors have had on them in many ways.
The WWS mentoring program has created a source of support, belonging, and community for children and their families through some of the most difficult times in their lives. Ernesto, a boy whose sister is battling leukemia and has been a part of WWS since 2016, said, “because I have my mentor I’m able to see the hope in my life. My mentor is always there to listen to me and to lead me in the right direction”. Parents and other family members also see the impact that mentors have on their children. Danette, a mom who is battling breast and bone cancer, said, “the most important and consistent thing is that my child knows he has someone on his side, just for him, that he can talk to openly and honestly about the things that are on his mind. And if nothing is on his mind, his mentor is still there.”
WWS also creates community and access outside of the mentorship through “Friendship Activities” and additional programs and resources. WWS hosts up to 6 Friendship Activities per year for all mentors, families, and staff to come together and share in a fun, educational experience. These events range from their annual surf day, where the WWS program spends a day at the beach focused on ocean therapy, meditation and building community, to the holiday event including ice skating and a cinematic experience. All Friendship Activities include an opening circle where staff leads the WWS Community in acknowledging how cancer impacts their lives and provides an opportunity for mentors and mentees to share their feelings and emotions with one another. In addition to these Friendship Activities, WWS organizes “Heart to Home”, a quarterly group art activity that includes creative activities that foster connection and sharing. Through this art healing, mentees gain access to additional support in dealing with painful circumstances and skills to reduce stress, build resilience, and increase self-confidence. Throughout their participation in the program activities, WWS also strives to develop high-school aged mentees into future leaders and philanthropists through the Junior Mentor Leadership Program, which is designed to provide them with a leadership role within WWS. This program encourages mentees to give back, preparing them for the next chapter of their life and the possibility of a scholarship upon completion of the program. The WWS Curriculum and additional support programs create a well-rounded support system for mentees and supplement the mentoring program to achieve the maximum positive outcomes for all program participants.
Binay, S. K., Armaly, J., & Swieter, E. (2017). Impact of Parental Cancer on Children. Anticancer Research: International Journal of Cancer Research and Treatment, 4025-4028.