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After children of friends were stricken with cancer, Stephanie Johnson (left) and Andie McConnell created the Fairy Godmother Project,
Stephanie Johnson (left) and Andie McConnell, who organized the Fairy Godmother Project that helps families
By CATHY DYSON
Andie McConnell saw two families go through the same isolation and despair after their children were diagnosed with cancer.
They struggled to keep up with daily chores as the disease--and its treatment--took over their lives.
Then, they watched well-meaning friends drift away. Perhaps they couldn't bear to be reminded that cancer is the leading cause of death in children through age 15.
"People just disappeared," said McConnell, who heard about the same situation from friends, six years apart, in Phoenix and Stafford County. "The support that you think should be there isn't."
McConnell, a mother of three, decided to provide it. With her friend, Stephanie Johnson, a part-time photographer with five children, McConnell formed the Fairy Godmother Project.
The group has two missions: to offer domestic help to families in "survival mode," as one mother put it, and to provide lasting memories, through photos, of little ones who may not be here long.
"For complete strangers to reach out and help the way they have they've just been wonderful," said Melanie Downie of Alexandria.
She's a single mother to Brian, a 6-year-old who has had more than 50 bone tumors in five years. Fairy godmothers have cleaned, cooked and cut the grass--tasks Downie didn't have time for between Brian's illness and her job as a government contractor.
"This is the first organization that has taken on the family, catered to what the family needs," she said. "It makes a huge difference."
'IT'S A GODSEND'
McConnell and Johnson both live in Stafford and joke that they don't like cleaning their own houses. But they'll gladly do it for others.
They have 10 trained volunteers who have helped about six families with domestic duties.
Their assistance has lowered the stress level of Lynelle Kapinos of Stafford. She and her husband, Jim, have two daughters, Lauren, 5, and Lyndsey, 3, and Lauren has battled leukemia all year.
Jim Kapinos is a frugal shopper who has stocked their three freezers. But as Lynelle Kapinos takes Lauren for treatment and deals with the side effects of chemotherapy, remembering what's in which freezer is the last thing on her mind.
Volunteers organized the frozen items for her. McConnell also looked into whether the family is eligible for a handicapped sticker (they are) and a program that reminds other students about a sick child when she's absent from school.
"It gives me more time to be able to interact with my children, whether it's fun and playing or snuggling or doing medicines," Lynelle Kapinos said. "You don't have to stop and figure out what you're going to cook for dinner. It's a godsend."
McConnell wants to line up restaurants or lawn-care businesses that would provide meals or rake leaves--once, twice or as often as they can afford. She'd also like to have gift cards for siblings and gas cards for parents.
"They shouldn't have to worry about finances and domestic stuff," McConnell said. "They should just have to worry about taking care of their children, particularly the one with cancer."
GIFT LASTS A LIFETIME
The second part of the project focuses on capturing memories.
Johnson has lined up 14 photographers to do photo sessions with families. Pediatric cancer often strikes babies, and parents haven't had the chance to have formal photos taken.
"Or, they think they'll do it later," Johnson said, and later never comes.
In Casey Kropf's case, the timing of the Fairy Godmother Project was just right.
Casey was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor when he was 6 months old. Before his death at 14 months, his parents tried numerous treatments, including a "last-chance effort" of proton radiation therapy, said Casey's mother.
Soon after the Kropfs returned to Fairfax, Johnson planned a visit in May.
"It was one of his last good weeks," his mother said. "You could still see the brightness of who he was, and he was really something to treasure."
Johnson spent several hours with Casey and his older sister, Hartley.
In one image, Casey is looking over his mother's shoulder, a slight smile on his cherubic face.
In another, he and Hartley are outside on wooden chairs as Hartley leans in to kiss her brother on the head. Hartley, 3, may not remember her brother as she gets older.
"But whenever she thinks of him, she's going to remember that picture on the wall," her mother said. "It's a gift that will last a lifetime."
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425
The Fairy Godmother Project is part of Journey 4 A Cure,
Based in Loudoun County, the organization was looking for ways to provide sources for families when Andie McConnell, co-founder of the fairy godmothers, contacted them, said President Beth Collingwood.
"Their ideas and mission were exactly what we knew families needed most," said Collingwood, who is Declan's aunt and watched his parents go through the physical, emotional and financial devastation.
Donations to the Fairy Godmother Project can be sent
The fairy godmothers also are looking for volunteers. More information is available at 540/751-8347 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Their website is: fairygodmotherproject.blog spot.com.