College is an exciting time for most students as they embrace learning and growing in a new community. Along the way, however, life can throw a wrench into the best-laid plans. Harsh circumstances can certainly crush a young person, or they can offer a chance to develop a sense of self and strengthen one’s determination to overcome and even thrive. Two FIU students each battled profound personal difficulties and have shared their stories of trials and triumph. Not only did they find their way back from despair, they turned their own experiences into opportunities to help others.
Kicking cancer to comfort others
Gisenia Reyes, 34, smiles brightly as she proudly identifies herself as a cancer survivor. In the fall of 2015, she was diagnosed with an aggressive type of blood cancer called acute myeloid leukemia. Reyes withdrew from her courses at FIU Modesto Campus to undergo emergency chemotherapy treatment and ultimately a stem cell transplant. She is now cancer free and credits her twin, Lucy, with saving her life as she served as her stem cell donor. Now, the sisters have partnered up again and created “We Care Chemo Kits.”
We Care Chemo Kits provides pediatric and adult cancer patients with a kit filled with useful items to ease the chemotherapy treatment process. The items are found at the dollar store and are donated by the community. The chemo kit includes items such as coloring books, word searches, handheld games and arts and crafts to name a few. Each delivery includes a colorful foil balloon and a heartfelt get well card written by a child.
“I spent over 100 days collectively in the hospital, so I understand firsthand what a chemo kit like this does for a cancer patient. It gives us joy, faith and endurance to keep fighting knowing that there is hope on the other side,” she said.
As her initiative has expanded, so has the outpouring of support. One woman sent handmade hats to help patients cope with hair loss and another had her child’s entire martial arts academy send in handmade get well cards to include the chemo kits.
“There are many creative ways to get involved with the organization. You can volunteer your time, your talent, donate the items, make a monetary gift donation, create your own fundraiser, send in ideas. The options are endless,” she said.
The Center for Leadership and Service at FIU, which recognizes and supports student-led initiatives, provided the Reyes sisters with a $1,000 grant to purchase startup items.
Reyes emphasizes an important aspect of the program is the delivery of the kits by cancer survivors. “I want each patient to see hope face-to-face,” she said. She also wants to create a network of survivors to come together to exchange coping tips and celebrate life after cancer.
“There are many residual effects from chemotherapy treatment,” Reyes said. “I gained 20 pounds due to the steroids, I lost all my hair and some days I suffer from extreme fatigue. I am faced with so many questions about what life looks like after cancer and having to come to terms with the new version of myself. It really is all overwhelming.”
But, she says, the struggle is worth it when she sees a smile on a cancer patient’s face. To date, some 150 patients in the local community have received the kits, and Reyes plans to expand to Broward and eventually nationwide. In the meantime, the English major has plans to reenroll at FIU in the spring and, fittingly, is working on a book documenting her experience as a survivor.