Mikey’s Way Fights to Keep Kids Connected – Westport News

Mikey’s Way fights to keep kids connected

Anthony Karge, Akarge@bcnnew.com

The sickness was the worst part of being in the hospital. For Mikey Friedman, the mind-numbing boredom was a close second. In between the debilitating chemotherapy treatments, surgeries and a stem cell transplant, there was just nothing for the 15-year-old to do except lie there with a rare and aggressive cancer, within his body. If the cancer doesn’t kill him, he told his father, the daytime television would. Family often visited and the hospital staff at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York would do their best to make Mikey comfortable, but something was missing. Other 15-year-olds could talk during the lunch period at school, bond together at gym class and then hang out after school or over the weekend. For Mikey, it was an endless cycle of treatments with little social interaction and few ways to occupy all the free time. For the other young people in the center, it was the same story. Mikey once said, “I wanted to start a foundation that would help kids with what I thought was the worst part of treatment: the boredom.” Les Friedman, his father, told the Westport News, “There’s all these wonderful organizations when you’re out of treatment that will help you, but when you’re there in the hospital there isn’t much.”

Mikey’s first bout with cancer began in 2005, when he was a freshman at Joel Barlow High School. Eventually, he became healthy enough to be released. He was selected as a recipient of a “wish” by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Typical wishes include a trip to Disneyland or a meeting with a celebrity. Mikey wanted something that would last longer. He asked for a foundation to be created that would give kids something to do when they’re stuck in a hospital. Unfortunately, Make-A-Wish’s policies wouldn’t allow the foundation to fund another foundation. Undeterred, Mikey instead asked for a shopping spree at Best Buy. That wish could be granted.

He loaded up the shopping cart with iPods, laptops, DVD players and handheld video game consoles. None of these electronics were for him. They were for the boys and girls at a Women and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo, N.Y. That was the start of the Mikey’s Way Foundation and the first ever Mikey’s Way Day. Mikey and Les went from room to room, asking kids to take their pick from the stash of gifts. The looks on the faces of these children were unforgettable to Les. As a heavyset man with a beard, Les said he “felt like Santa Claus” when he asked kids what gadget they wanted. The giving also energized his son, who took pride in the fact that the kids would have a more pleasant hospital stay than what he had. Pictures of a slim, smiling and bespectacled Mikey handing out gifts to the kids say it all.

In a segment on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams that aired in 2006, Les said, “I just sat there and stared at him and said, `You’re too good to be true.’”

The press started to pick up on the story of the selfless teen and the work he was doing to help others going through what he had gone through a year before. That year, without any solicitations, $175,000 was raised solely through word of mouth and media coverage. Nearly 20 Mikey’s Way Days took place throughout the country.

Keeping kids connected

When a hospital is selected for a Mikey’s Way Day, all that the organization asks for is the gender and age range of the recipients. That way, the gifts can cater to certain people. For example, babies can receive stuffed animals that record the mother’s heartbeat and play it back for the baby to hear, in hopes of relieving anxiety. A ten year old might opt for a Nintendo 3DXL or Sony PSVita, complete with a few games to play. Teens could be more partial to a Laptop Computer or an iPod Touch. The goal of some of the gifts is not just to keep the kids occupied, but to keep them connected with their friends and family.

“Everything you need comes with it to connect the kids to a world of play,” he said.

With that connection, kids can check Facebook or update Twitter statuses. They can even complete their homework. In essence, an escape from the monotony of hospital life is provided, and the data is there to back it up.

As part of the nonprofit grant requirements, the Mikey’s Way Foundation created surveys to gauge just how often the kids were using the items. A majority reported that they were using the items three to five hours a day. In some cases, parents would even scrawl little notes on the surveys, saying things like, “Can’t pull them away from it.”

A day without Mikey

Mikey graduated as valedictorian of his class at Joel Barlow and attended Harvard University in 2007. He was fascinated with black holes and outer space, but he wanted to be a pediatric oncologist in order to study, treat and eventually cure cancer. He was accepted as an intern at a lab with a breast cancer researcher, and devoted all the time he could to that job. He worked there up until October 2008, which is when his dad had to admit him to the hospital for the last time.

At 19 years of age, Mikey died from cancer.

A story in the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, noted “his optimism in the face of his bleak prognosis.” He was a light-hearted prankster who once covered a friend’s dorm in green plastic army men. “On a typical day in his Kirkland suite, Michael `Mikey’ J. Friedman, ’11, could be found singing `Hakuna Matata,’ playing with the protein modeling computer program, Pymol, or coming up with some harebrained scheme to entertain and distract his friends,” the story reported.

His family was devastated, and through their grief, the foundation their son created fell to the wayside for about a year. This December, they were at a crossroads: should they continue the foundation or not.

“If we were going to do it, we were going to do it right,” said Les.

In the end they decided to carry on with Mikey’s mission.

Les left his job as the East Coast sales representative of a line of women’s shoes. He was joined by Mikey’s mother and step-mother, along with a development director. The group rented an office in Westport CT.

Despite their modest means, the group was able to recruit actress Jennifer Love Hewitt to appear in a public service announcement to spread the word about the foundation. When Mikey was first hospitalized, Hewitt actually visited the room where he was staying. Mikey had a huge crush on her and had a poster of her in his room, so this proved to be a memorable event. After he passed away, the family reached out to her and she was receptive.

The biggest step, and perhaps the most difficult, was having the first Mikey’s Day without him. Women & Children’s Hospital of Buffalo was selected as the site — the site of the very first Mikey’s Way Day — and on March 22, a cart of goodies were handed out by Les and Lydell Sargeant, a Buffalo Bills cornerback. The kids had no idea what was in store that day.

“They were completely shocked,” said Lisa Latrovato, senior development associate at the hospital. “Imagine if this gentleman and a Buffalo Bills player walks up to you and says, `What would you like today? Would you like a [Nintendo] DS or a laptop?’”

Several more of these days are planned this year, and an appearance on The Today Show is scheduled for May 2. Their Westport office may be small, but Les and others are working hard to ensure the longevity of the organization his son selflessly started.

“Cancer research and cure is tomorrow. … What about these kids today?” Les asked.

Donations can be made on the organization’s website www.mikeysway.org  or by mail to Mikey’s Way Foundation, 2228 Suite 311 Fairfield Ct 06825