Outside The Morgan Center, its students’ lives are filled with doctor’s appointments, needle pricks and chemotherapy drugs.
But inside the Hicksville preschool’s sun-dappled classrooms, days are structured around music, story time and snacks for the center’s students — all cancer patients or siblings of one.
About 16 of the students closed the year Wednesday with a cheer and a toss of their mortarboards as part of the school’s graduation and moving up ceremony.
“It’s very important to celebrate their milestones, especially for children who have cancer and are in chemo treatment,” said the center’s director Nancy Zuch. “In their lives, everything is that much more important.”
This year, the school was also honoring its own milestone. For 15 years, The Morgan Center, a nonprofit located in the Town of Oyster Bay Hicksville Athletic Center, has worked to help preschool-aged children fighting cancer enjoy childhood, if only for a few hours, three days a week. The center is free for accepted students. It is funded through donations and fundraising.
Zuch and her husband Rod, of Bay Shore, started the center in 2003 because their daughter, the eponymous Morgan, now 19, battled acute lymphoblastic leukemia and couldn’t attend preschool.
Children in treatment have weakened immune systems and cannot attend traditional school or day care, Zuch said. Some of their siblings can’t either, because they may bring home bacteria and viruses children with cancer can’t handle
“To see the progression of the center is such a big deal,” said Morgan Zuch, who is also celebrating 10 years cured of cancer. “We’ve helped so many families going through this battle.”
Sometimes it’s nice to be somewhere that losing your hair is the norm, said alumna Daphne Delgado, who returned for the ceremony Wednesday. Delgado, 18, of Elmhurst, Queens, was one of the program’s first official graduates in 2003. Today, she is cured of leukemia and will graduate from high school in a few weeks.
“To know the center is still ongoing, making these kids feel good about themselves and forget about their treatments, it makes me happy,” Delgado said. “This was my safe haven.”
The center also provides an outlet for parents, who get to meet other families going through the same experiences. Daphne’s father Omar Delgado, 49, said seeing his daughter happy lifted the weight of her diagnosis.
“Her face lit up all the time,” her father, Omar Delgado, 49 said. “She had so much fun, it was so worth the one hour drive to get here.”
Some of the children who participated Wednesday will go on to kindergarten and others will return to the center in the fall, but it’s all worth celebrating, Zuch said. Wednesday’s event had all the trimmings of a big kid graduation, with Pomp and Circumstance, diplomas and an ice cream sundae bar.
Morgan Sim, 5, of Port Washington, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2016. Not only was Wednesday the end of her time at the center, it was also a celebration of the end of her treatment, which Morgan completed a few weeks ago. She can now attend kindergarten in her local school district, said her mother RuRu Liao-Sim.
“Our social worker told us about this program and who really thinks about that when you just get diagnosed?” Liao-Sim said. “Now she gets to start kindergarten in the fall. We’re so excited. It’s so nice to move forward.”