FOR 17-YEAR-OLD Grace Callwood, a terrible diagnosis sparked a lifelong desire to combat the sadness of kids confronting personal trauma.
Grace Callwood knows what it feels like to be a child suffering from pain and sadness.
In 2011, when she was just seven years old, Grace was diagnosed with stage 4 Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“I had no idea what cancer was, or what it meant, until I had it. I just knew that this new terrible thing had come upon me,” Grace recalls.
The diagnosis upended her life. Instead of discovering the joys of school in first grade, Grace spent weeks in hospital enduring chemotherapy and surgery – part of a long journey back to health.
The mission of We Cancerve is to bring swift solutions to children in need, because we believe happiness shouldn’t have to wait.”
There are some things in life, like cancer, that you can’t choose. But there are some things you can. In that moment, Grace chose generosity over self-pity. When she learned about two young girls who lost their home in a fire, Grace donated her new, unused school clothes to help them in their recovery.
That act of kindness fueled a spirit of giving that Grace channeled into We Cancerve Movement Inc., a nonprofit with a mission to provide happy experiences to children who are homeless, ill or in foster care. To date, the organization has served more than 25,000 youth.
Tell me a bit about yourself and your journey with cancer.
I am 17 years old and a junior in the Global Studies International Baccalaureate Program at Edgewood High School, in Edgewood, Maryland. When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I was in the hospital for about two weeks. During that time, I started a five-week chemotherapy regimen. That’s the time it took to get the cancer out of me. My family noticed lumps in my neck and in my thigh. It took another three years of treatment to make sure it didn’t come back. I have had three major surgeries. I lost my hair five times due to chemotherapy. At some point I was taking more than 20 pills a day. I’ve had 81 spinal taps. I was declared cured in 2019, which means I had gone five years off chemotherapy without a relapse.
Why did you start We Cancerve?
When I got sick, I was showered with so many blessings and acts of kindness from my church, from the hospital, from the community. So many people who brought me moments of happiness that I wanted to share with other youth in sad situations. So when I heard about these two girls who lost their home, all I could think about was how I related to them; how our lives had totally changed in an instant. I decided to donate my brand-new back-to-school clothes because I knew that those girls needed the clothes. I certainly didn’t. My mom made the delivery because I was too sick to go. And when my mom told me about their happy reaction, I knew I wanted to do more work like that. I learned that giving back is something I want to do and that I’m effective in doing.
What does the organization look like today?
We have an all-youth board of advisors ages 8 to 18. There are currently eight of us, including myself. Together we plan and brainstorm ways to bring some happiness into the lives of kids who have a lot of sadness. The mission of We Cancerve is to bring swift solutions to children in need, because we believe happiness shouldn’t have to wait. I remember in the beginning of my journey with cancer, I was just living my seven-year-old life. And I felt I had done something wrong. Was it because I didn’t drink my water or eat my vegetables? I was a kid. I didn’t understand. It’s important that we tell kids the troubles they face are not their fault.
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What kind of experiences do you provide?
I will start with Camp Happy, which is a day camp for homeless youth. It’s my personal favorite project. We Cancerve is the first nonprofit to create a free onsite summer enrichment program for homeless and foster youth within Harford County, Maryland. We do field trips, bring in special guests and have activities focused on academic enrichment. Homeless youth often need the extra help when it comes to academics, so we try to include education as a key component of the experience.
We also run La Boutique Magnifique for girls in foster care at a group home in Bel Air, Maryland. The boutique provides girls with clothes appropriate for work and worship. We started with one room in 2016 and have now expanded to two rooms and have served over 300 girls to date.
We try to make holidays special, too. Since 2012, for Easter, we prepare Eggstra Special East Bagskits for homeless, sick and foster children. It’s especially personal for me because there have been a couple of holidays when I was in the hospital. We fill these paper bags decorated by elementary school children with different Easter treats, small crafts and hands-on activities.
What do you hope these experiences mean to these kids?
I hope they feel seen and recognized. I just want them to know that we pay attention. We want to let them know their happiness matters. We take pride in our active listening and being sure that we give what the kids ask for and need.
What’s next for We Cancerve?
We’ve been planning sustainable projects because I will be aging out of the We Cancerve board when I graduate from high school next spring. I want We Cancerve to continue when I go to college. Through We Are Family Foundation, we have established little libraries in predominantly Black and Brown communities to promote and encourage literacy and diversity. We’re also working to expand our founding project called Threads of Hope to provide back-to-school clothes to homeless youth. We’re opening the Threads of Hope Closet this spring at a Title I elementary school near the biggest homeless shelter in our county. The new closet will actually serve as a resource for the entire school population and help families who need a little extra help regardless of housing status. It will bring We Cancerve full circle to where it began.