Therapy Dogs Bring Extra Love to 30 Days of Giving
Writer Shannon Severson
Photography by Loralei Lazurak
Life can change in an instant. For families who receive the devastating news that their child has cancer, a mighty struggle begins—and not just against the disease itself.
Arizona Cancer Foundation for Children, founded by Chrisie Funari in memory of her daughter, Ava, exists to provide direct social, emotional and financial support for families facing cancer.
“When I lost Ava, I didn’t give up hope,” says Funari. “I knew my story wasn’t unique; all cancer families face the same struggles. That’s what inspires me to create hope by providing direct assistance to local families who have children with cancer. Navigating the hospitals, lending an ear, providing financial assistance—I will do whatever it takes to support these families.”
Every September, the foundation honors Childhood Cancer Awareness Month with its 30 Days of Giving campaign. Families are referred to the foundation by social workers at local hospitals, including Phoenix Children’s, Banner Health and Cardon Children’s Medical Center. Every day, a new family receives financial and emotional assistance in the form of needed funding and custom backpacks, called “Sunshine Packs,” filled with toys and items based on the individual child’s interest. Families can also schedule a visit with one of the foundation’s therapy dogs, like Leo and his handler, K9-Companion Director Meg Dufour.
“As a team, we’ve witnessed the unimaginable through this program,” says Dufour. “Parents finally have the chance to watch their children do something other than suffer—that’s the ugly truth. Watching children and their families enjoy time with our therapy dogs truly warms my heart. The second we walk in the door, the dogs immediately put everyone at ease.”
The affable chocolate labrador retriever visits families in their homes or at the foundation’s office. Dufour describes Leo as sweet and goofy, with an instinctive intuition to meet the needs of the different children he visits.
Angel, an 8-year-old who has been battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia for the past year, was able to visit with Leo for this story. He is undergoing oral chemotherapy and must visit Phoenix Children’s Hospital three times each week, yet he always tries to remain positive. He was a bit shy with Leo at first, but quickly relaxed with him when the dog spent the evening with him, his mother, Guadalupe, and his two older siblings, Kevin and Ana. They all fell in love with Leo.
When asked if he enjoyed the visit, Angel exclaimed, “Me encantó!” which translates to “I loved it!”
With tears in her eyes, Guadalupe watched her children experiencing pure joy. They also had the chance to go “shopping” in the ACFC toy room, filling bags with items that caught their attention.
Angel’s battle and two blood cancer scares for Kevin earlier this year have put a huge financial strain on she and her husband. The help from ACFC has allowed them to keep their home.
“I can’t find the words to thank you for all this,” Guadalupe said through an interpreter. “The financial assistance that was provided in April truly couldn’t have come at a better time.”
“This program has truly blossomed into something we could never imagine,” says Community Outreach Director Monica Graffius, “Children, parents, siblings, caretakers … everyone truly benefits. These special visits have a way of putting everyone in the room at ease and bringing peace into parents’ hearts as they watch their children step away from cancer’s reality to have a moment of fun and a chance to just be a child.”
As a non-profit, 501(c)3 organization, ACFC relies on donations and volunteers to help them in their mission. Businesses, schools and individuals can host fundraisers, drives to collect items for Sunshine Packs, adopt a family, host or attend events that benefit the foundation or even write get well cards for children battling cancer. There are so many ways that entire families are able to get involved, and the help goes directly to those battling cancer right here in our own community.