For the past 26 years, Joli Craver has walked the halls of Nemours Childrens Specialty Care.
Shes not a doctor or a nurse, but rather a friendly face for the dozens of families who pass through the pediatric cancer treatment center.
Craver, whose first name is pronounced jolly, makes the children and their families feel exactly that way.
I do everything I can to make this abnormal environment seem normal, she said. I give them support and encourage them to ask questions and understand whats going on.
Cravers title is a child-life specialist and she uses play, laughter and distractions such as sticker books, toys and bubbles while the children receive cancer treatment.
The anticipation is the worst, so I help lower their anxiety by distracting them, she said. The more they can focus on something else, the better.
THINK LIKE KIDS
Craver discovered the profession while pursuing an undergraduate degree at Florida State University.
I had a hard time there and was prepared to go home after two years, she said. When I called my dad, he said, Youre not coming home, youve got to figure this out.
After that phone call, Craver heard someone on campus talking about the child-life specialist profession.
It fascinated me, because it involved kids and play in a medical setting, which I was comfortable with, she said. I feel comfortable with kids, because God gave me a brain to think like kids.
In 1991, Craver joined Nemours Childrens Specialty Care as a part-time child-life specialist.
Three years later, doctors and nurses approached families of patients telling them there was a funding issue and they were worried Craver wouldnt be able to remain on staff.
It felt good, Craver said about having her colleagues rally to fund her position. Everybody realizes that nobody could do a great job by themselves.
She added, When you have kids who completed treatment coming back to say hi to everyone, you know youve done as good of a job as youre going to do.
A SMILE ON YOUR FACE
In October 1994, the families of Nemours Childrens Specialty Care patients established the Child Cancer Fund with the mission to raise money to fund Cravers position.
Child Cancer Fund Vice President Carol Keirnan and her husband, J.F., who serves as the organizations president, recall meeting Craver when their daughter, Christy, was in treatment at the hospital in 1997 for a malignant brain tumor.
You cant be around Joli without having a smile on your face, Keirnan said. She knew how to talk to the kids and get to their deepest anxieties, which is so critical to the kids well-being in order for them to get through everything they have to deal with.
Following five years of treatment, the cancer re-emerged for the Keirnans then 12-year-old daughter.
Just two years later, Christy passed away at the age of 14.
We had friends who wanted to do something when Christy died, so instead of flowers we asked for donations to the Child Cancer Fund, J.F. Keirnan said.
The couple used the donations they received in 2005 to set up an endowment within the Child Cancer Fund. Their goal was to raise $1.5 million to fund Cravers position as a child-life specialist at Nemours Childrens Specialty Care for eternity.
As of June, the endowment has reached $1.1 million.
Its taken 12 years to get to this point, but we never dreamed we could have raised that amount, Keirnan said. Once we reach the $1.5 million goal, the interest will repay the salary forever so the position will be forever funded in Jacksonville.
J.F. Keirnan said he anticipates it will take three more years to reach the goal of $1.5 million.
The Child Cancer Fund can then focus entirely on their programming and financial assistance for families whose children are receiving treatment, he said. Christy touched a lot of peoples lives and her story continues to, and this is our way of making her story real for people.
A CHANCE TO GIVE BACK
The Child Cancer Fund has grown from just raising money for Cravers position to providing financial help for families in Northeast Florida and Southern Georgia whose children are receiving treatment at Wolfson Childrens Hospital and Nemours Childrens Specialty Care, and providing support services including hosting a family retreat weekend at Camp Boggy Creek in Eustis.
Executive Director Carla Montgomery joined the organization in 2000 when her then five-year-old son was diagnosed with Hodgkins disease.
This is a chance for me to give back, because Ive been through what these families are going through, she said. Having that experience helps me make decisions to provide the best programing and services to make their lives easier and help them get through it.
The Child Cancer Funds latest venture is a tutoring program, which launched in 2014, to provide complimentary academic help to children receiving cancer treatment.
These kids are missing a lot of school and the disease itself can result in some cognitive challenges, Montgomery said. The more they can keep up with school and their peers, the better.
In the future, Montgomery said shed like to see the Child Cancer Fund remain a local organization.
Though people from other areas have contacted me, I dont think this would ever go national, she said. I think we can better serve children and families, because were local and its in our own community. Im very protective of the families and I dont know if that would get lost on a national level.
Montgomery added that shes the only paid staff member of the organization and while shes looking into adding more staff members, shes hesitant to do so.
Its hard, because we want as much as possible to go to the families, she said. Its so personal for us.
GIVE THE JOB 100 PERCENT
For Craver, though shes spent more than 25 years as a child-life specialist at Nemours Childrens Specialty Care, shes in no hurry to leave.
When asked about plans, she quickly responded, Another 25.
I want to do what Im doing and be put where Im needed, Craver said. As bad as this diagnosis is, some of them end up wanting to give back in some way by going into the medical field or choosing a career that helps people.
Craver said whats kept her going all these years is being able to perfect a work-life balance.
Ive always tried to separate work and my life outside of here and I think thats one reason why I really enjoy my job 25 years later, she said. There are sour days, but tomorrow youll be back here and there will be a brand new family and you have to give the job 100 percent.
When Craver retires, she said the person who takes her place needs to flexible and not take things too seriously.
Sometimes youre asked to do things that arent your job, but if I ask if itll help the child and their family and the answer is yes then Im doing it, she said. I would tell the person to keep the big picture in their mind and hold onto their hat.
Ann Friedman: (904) 359-4619
The rest is here:
Child-life specialist puts smiles on faces of children with cancer – Florida Times-Union