CCA student starts nonprofit to help sick children in Pennsylvania
Middle school student helps found a charitable organization to brighten kids' stays at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
Sophia Giamo of Montgomery County knows what it's like to be a sick kid at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). She spent three weeks there when a chronic illness turned serious. When her family chose CCA so Sophia could focus on her health, they didn't anticipate that the move would fundamentally change their lives.
Now an eighth-grader at CCA, Sophia was diagnosed with illness-induced asthma when she was 5. For her, that meant an ordinary cold could turn into pneumonia, and require weeks or longer to recover.
Colleen Giamo, Sophia's mother, said they tried to make their Catholic school work despite how often her daughter got sick. Then three years ago her younger daughter, Charlie Mae, contracted the flu. Sophia, then 10 years old, caught the virus next and developed dangerous complications.
“She spent a total of about three weeks at CHOP, and she ended up having a complicated pleural effusion on her left side,” Giamo said. “They had to perform VATS thoracic lung surgery, keep a chest tube/drain in her for a week and she was in isolation due to complications. It was the worst time of our lives.”
One bright note in her stay? The toys and games provided by the hospital's Child Life Services department.
“We were able to go down to the community room and pick out whatever toy, game or art and craft we thought would help Sophia, and bring it back to her room," Giamo said. "And Charlie Mae could also go pick out whatever she wanted to occupy herself, and bring it back as well. To keep Sophia's mind off the pain of the drain in her lung, we played games, we painted, we had things to do."
After the hospitalization, Giamo said the family decided to try CCA for a year, to give Sophia and Charlie Mae, who shares the same condition, a break from the exposure to large numbers of children and their germs. To her surprise, they loved it.
“We had a really great first year,” Giamo said. “They stayed healthy for the entire year. They didn’t miss a day of school. And they had a fabulous education.”
Part of what made CCA work for her family was the close relationships the girls developed with their teachers, Giamo said.
“They got them talking. They got them participating in LiveLessons,” Giamo said. “They got them feeling confident again, and really stepping out on their own,” Giamo said.
Giamo said switching to CCA took the pressure off the family, and helped them to heal after Sophia's traumatic illness.
“We had happy kids! They weren’t sick all the time. We were just finding joy in the every day and just forgetting what all that was like,” Giamo said. “We found our family again.”
Another part of that healing was helping Sophia find a way to put the experience, and her fear of the hospital, behind her. Giamo said they decided to collect some toys to donate to the Child Life Services department. The idea grew after Sophia's friend, Bronwyn, who is the daughter of a close family friend, had brain surgery and spent three months at CHOP. That's when Giamo said they really saw the scope of what the Child Services provided to families – all with donated items. That's what prompted Sophia and Bronwyn, their younger sisters and their families to start "CHOP DROP."
Not only did attending CCA give Sophia the flexibility to help manage CHOP DROP, but her teachers got involved and supported the project, Giamo said.
“They all talked about it in LiveLessons. They had team LiveLessons on Fridays and they would discuss it, talk about it and help her promote it. And Charlie Mae’s teacher as well brought it into LiveLessons ... they were amazing. Amazing.”
With the encouragement of her family and teachers, Sophia blossomed, Giamo said.
“She started to speak in LiveLessons and do oral presentations. This led to her speaking confidentially in new interviews for CHOP DROP," Giamo said. "We had never seen her blossom like this before. It was because she was able to be in school every day. And because she was able to make friendships, and she was able to get to know her teachers. … It has become one of the biggest blessings we could ask for.”
Following the success of the first official CHOP DROP in August 2016, which included local television coverage, Sophia and her partners decided to take the project to the next level. They won a Disney Summer of Service grant to help fund legal expenses, and this past spring CHOP DROP became a nonprofit organization.
All that hard work is paying off – this year, CHOP DROP has collected approximately $7,000 in donations. In addition to toys, games, craft supplies and other materials, they also are providing Giant, Target and Amazon gift cards to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, as well as cash donations to help families in need purchase meals while their children are hospitalized.
“We’ve come full circle. We’re in a place now to put more good in the world," Giamo said. "It’s taking something bad that happened and turning it into something good. We’ve gained a beautiful group of friends, an incredible school community, supportive teachers and we’ve grown closer as a family.”
The second annual CHOP DROP is scheduled to take place on Aug. 29.
Sophia and her organization are continuing to collect toys, art supplies, books and more through Aug. 25. Find more information at the CHOP DROP website or Facebook page. A wish list for donations also is posted at Amazon.com.