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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 29, 2010

Circle of Champs brightens life for ill children and their families year-round

By Anne Hayden

GUILDERLAND — The Circle of Champs program gives seriously ill children and their families a chance to make friends, give and receive support, and help each other heal.

One of its founders is Sandra Nardoci; she lost her father to cancer, and said he often told her that she should not feel sorry for him, and that it was the surviving family members who would suffer the most. Nardoci said watching her father handle his illness motivated her to begin volunteering with ill children over 20 years ago.

Circle of Champs was founded nearly 15 years ago by four people who had been volunteers for a day camp called Good Days and Special Times — Nardoci, Rob Nazarian, and Jay and Todd Vandervort.

Nardoci said that, when the day camp ended its program, she and her co-founders wanted to continue providing children and families with support and activities. The group of four set out on their own, but found they had trouble funding the different activities they wanted to organize.

Nardoci was on the board of directors at the Guilderland YMCA, and asked if the YMCA would be willing to support a program for children and families affected by cancer.

“The YMCA has been really supportive of our mission and goals,” Nardoci said. In addition to funding the program through the Reach Out for Youth Campaign, Circle of Champs accepts in-kind donations, and holds fund-raisers. It is a program with a small committee, and is completely dependent on volunteers, Nardoci said.

“It’s a great time for children and their parents to get together, do recreational activities, offer support, and share resources,” said Maureen Silk-Eglet, a volunteer with the program. She’s been volunteering for over two years.

The program offers free activities monthly, including hay rides, museum visits, taking the Albany Aqua Ducks tour, going to shows at Proctor’s Theatre, and attending local sporting events.

Each summer, the ill children and their siblings get to attend a week of Camp Nassau, a day camp where kids can explore the outdoors, as well as go on field trips. At the end of camp, children and their parents attend a picnic.

The focus of most local programs for children affected by cancer was on summer camps, and Nardoci said she and her Circle of Champs co-founders wanted to provide something monthly.

“These kids are sick year-round, not just in the summer,” said Nardoci. She said she also wanted to focus on activities the whole family could enjoy, since illness is emotionally rough on loved relatives.

“A big family”

The Couillard family, from Delmar, has been participating in the Circle of Champs program since 2004, when their son, Maxim, was diagnosed with leukemia.

“They provide activities that are fun for the whole family, so that you can forget that your child is incredibly ill,” said Sue Couillard, Maxim’s mother. Her son is almost 10 now, and he has been in remission and off of treatment for two-and-a-half years.

“It was such a trauma to him, but when he gets so many positive strokes from the volunteers with the program, it makes him feel really good,” said Mrs. Couillard.

She said it is nice to be able to see so many families she already knows from the hospital in a much more positive environment, and she has made many families from the hospital aware of the program.

“This is like a big support group. We’ve become like a big family. More people in our position should do this,” she said.

Silk-Eglet said, on average, around 20 children and their families are involved with the program.

“It’s nice to be able to brighten their days, and have some fun,” said Silk-Eglet.

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