Making kids smile...if only for 28 pages.

January 25, 2023 6 min read

Written By: Joseph Gaccione

What happens when two forces of good team up for a great cause? A super partnership.

Critical Care Comics is proud to grow its relationship with fellow nonprofit Tyler Robinson Foundation.The Tyler Robinson Foundation’s primary mission is to support families struggling with pediatric cancer diagnoses and treatments through financial and emotional resources. With applications now open for CCC’s new Survivor Scholarship, the time is right to amplify the message with a like-minded group of local superheroes.

Inspired by the battle waged by its namesake Tyler Robinson, the organization provides relief for families via grants to help with non-medical bills (like food, phone, and utilities); helping coordinating travel; organizing family outings; or simply keeping in touch with the child’s progress. That’s where people like Azalea Sanchez comes in.  She’s a Family Liaison for TRF, acting as the point of contact for the families to make sure they have what they need. “We have families all over the country [and] Canada,” she explains. “If they need any changes or modifications, TRF steps in and helps with the grants that we offer.” Sanchez prioritizes keeping in touch with each family on a regular basis. “There are just so many detours in every single one of these families’ journey,” she says. “So much can change in a matter of weeks if we go without being in touch.”

Azalea works with Michelle Gonzaga, Senior Director of Outreach for TRF. As Senior Director of Outreach, Gonzaga coordinates not just with families but volunteers and partner hospitals. Gonzaga has been with TRF for 6 years, but no matter how many children she encounters, she’s touched every time. “Every family is different; every case is different,” she explains. “No two days are ever the same. No two diagnoses are ever the same.”

Origin Story

Critical Care Comics and the Tyler Robinson Foundation became affiliated with each other through a mutual friend, Sara Boucher. She volunteered with TRF but was also friends with CCC members.  As she advanced to full-time work with TRF, she helped bridge the connection between the two organizations.  The timing was fortuitous, as CCC had just launched their new scholarship. “It was a perfect opportunity for both organizations to team up and ensure pediatric cancer survivors all over the country are receiving the care they need”, says Richard Tango, President of Critical Care Comics.

Since then, Critical Care has attended several TRF events, like their Rise Up Gala.  They’ve also visited TRF patients in the hospital when called upon, which Gonzaga says the families love. “It really shakes things up and it brings so much excitement and joy to the kids, and that's really what we're looking for,” she says. “Anything that we can do to provide a smile for the kids, it's worthwhile for us.” Azalea says there’s something about the sight of costumed crusaders that adds to a child’s excitement. “A lot of the kids feed off the energy they receive from their families and siblings, and superheroes just make everything better, just seeing how they can come in and just change someone's day [or] week,” she says. “With Critical Care Comics, I know anytime we need them, they have made it clear they will be there.”

Personal Battles

Tango, Gonzaga, and Sanchez all know firsthand the battle with pediatric cancer.  Both Tango and Gonzaga are survivors, while Sanchez’s young son was diagnosed in 2014.

Tango was diagnosed at age 12 and admits he kept details on his cancer diagnosis private.  “For a long time, I was fearful of sharing my cancer story because I didn't want anyone to feel sorry for me -- I didn't want special treatment because I was a survivor,” he explains. But through contact with other survivors and their families, Tango realized he didn’t have to be held back by his illness. “Hiding my treatment for so long was a disservice to myself and others,” Tango says.  “There was a myth for me that cancer survivors are weak and feeble, but that simply isn't the case.  We're some of the strongest people in the world and I'm frequently inspired when I meet the many children who fight this terrible disease.” He adds, “I've learned I'm not alone, and it's ok to talk about my experience.”

Sanchez joined TRF based on her son Benji’s cancer treatment.  In 2015, there was a family room at Sunrise Hospital, and it had Imagine Dragon's lyrics on the wall,” she recalls. “We were in there every day, and I happened to snap a photo of my son and tag them on social media, and we just got in touch that way. They surprised our family with a grant. At that time, we had no idea where we were going with my son. He was very critical, and they stepped in and rescued us.” She praised TRF for allowing her to be with her son. “You don't want to leave your child alone in the hospital. I was blessed to have that. Our families can do that and stay with their children in the hospital, and that is important.”

Gonzaga learned of her cancer diagnosis at age 4 with subsequent treatment.  That experience enhances her empathy for child cancer patients and their families, which makes her appreciate CCC’s hospital visits more. “Knowing what it's like as a kid to be stuck in the hospital and to have the same kind of routines over and over again, it really shakes things up, and it brings so much excitement and joy to the kids, and that's really what we're looking for.”

Bringing More Attention

Having more awareness about childhood cancer not only invites more conversation, but it also can debunk common myths.  Gonzaga says one popular misconception is being done with treatment after being deemed cancer free.  “My doctor visits continued until I was 18 years old. I was cancer free when I was eight years old. Then every year, I had to go to my oncologist, and we'd still have to do scans and blood tests until I was 18.” Gonzaga adds the physical challenges were on top of the mental health toll. “I've made it a point now with TRF to check in on our families’ mental health, especially after the pandemic.”

Another major factor in raising awareness is for research.  Azalea says the National Cancer Institute has only 4% of government allocated funds for childhood cancer research. “These kids are surviving off old protocols and regiments that just are not working for everyone,” she says. “That’s the thing that's hard. These kids are having really hard time with long-term effects.” To this point, the NCI cites several challenges for studying childhood cancer:

  • Cancers in children and adolescents are “relatively uncommon” and represent less than 1% of all new cancer cases diagnosed in the United States each year.
  • The reasons behind genetic changes that could lead to cancer in children are unknown and make it more difficult to pinpoint preventive measures.
  • Some childhood cancer therapies produce late effects, which can cause serious health issues in patients, including shorter life expectancies.

Despite all this, organizations like Critical Care Comics and TRF are both committed to make a difference for their families to give their children a chance to not only survive but to live. “Roughly 16,000 children a year are diagnosed with cancer, and I won't stop until every one of those children can go to college for free,” Tango says. “No child that endured cancer treatment should have to worry about how to pay for higher education -- and I hope our relationship with TRF will continue making that dream a reality.”

Azalea says TRF is working with the National Grace Foundation, a nonprofit that provides free college admissions for pediatric cancer patients and survivors. The goal is to tie that in with Critical Care Comics’ own scholarship program to make a solid partnership even stronger.  “Tyler Robinson Foundation is there for the long haul, not just during the critical moments,” she says. “We are there for years after. It's one big community and it's great having the comradery wherever you can grab it from.”


References: Research Areas - Childhood Cancer - NCI

Ryan Green
Ryan Green

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