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Charleston native wins contest with pediatric program

By Candace Nelson

Lindsey Fitzwater thought she might want to become a pediatric oncologist after spending some time volunteering at local hospitals during her summer breaks.

That's why she participated in a summer program at The Johns Hopkins University where she shadowed physicians from around the country.

Meeting one little boy in the hospital, probably about 7 years old, cemented the goal for the West Virginia University sophomore.

"He was watching cartoons but not really paying attention. The doctors were trying to talk to him, but you could tell he just felt horrible," Fitzwater, 19, of Charleston, said.

"I looked over and saw on his IV pole, he has all of these glass beads. A ton of them - probably the equivalent of 40 Mardi Gras beads. I said 'Oh, those are nice!' "

"He jumped up, grabbed them and pulled them into his lap and said 'These are my Beads of Courage!' I didn't know anything about it, so I asked him to tell me."

Beads of Courage is a program that helps children cope with serious illness by documenting and telling their own story with beads.

"He had all these white ones - more than 100 - and he said, 'These are for all the nights I had to spend in the hospital. The purple ones are for all the times they've had to take blood out of my arm. See the boy with brown hair? That's for the first time I lost my hair.'

"He kept going on and on. And it made me realize how much this one small child had gone through."

It was then that Fitzwater decided she wanted to start something that will help kids faced with dire health conditions be kids - not coping, not managing the illness.

"The biggest problem for the kids is the health issue," Fitzwater said. "But another big problem is that the kids psychologically suffer. They have these life-altering illnesses. They won't leave their rooms to utilize great resources like activity centers. And there are child life service specialists who help patients cope with illness or provide distractions."

"I don't want them to focus on working through it. I felt they needed something to help them completely forget. Just focus on being a kid."

Fitzwater created the Pediatric Entertainment Program, which is pending nonprofit status, in Charleston last year. It works with volunteers in hospitals to engage children in structured activities - like games, puppets, skits and more.

"I had a great childhood, with no serious illness, so volunteering really made me aware of some of the chronic illness and life-threatening diseases that some of these children have, causing them to spend their days in a hospital room," Fitzwater said.

"I can't imagine them not being able to go out and just be a kid, so I want to help change their lives."

And with the $10,000 she recently won in Amway's "Who Cares" Challenge, she plans to expand those activities and purchase more materials for the program.

Amway, a direct-selling company, held its youth leadership contest to honor 10 young people who have shown leadership in community service.

Fitzwater submitted her story and community service to the online contest, and the public was able to vote on the top 100. From there, Amway chose 10 contestants to receive a $10,000 prize.

Fitzwater hopes to use $2,000 to provide a scholarship fund for program volunteers, $1,000 for print materials (both volunteer and promotional resources), $2,000 to purchase items for hospital visits (costumes, craft supplies, books, special-needs items) and $5,000 for a savings account that will be used later to restock supplies, as seed money for future fundraising projects and to assist other Pediatric Entertainment Program chapters across the world.

Fitzwater's program has locations in Charleston, Morgantown, Houston, Beijing and Shanghai, China.

While interning at The Johns Hopkins University, she met friends from China and Texas who wanted to take her concept home with them. Fitzwater created the materials and submitted the literature to them to begin those locations.

Each hospital's needs vary, but each program coincides with a hospital and uses volunteers to help kids forget their illnesses and just be kids by engaging them in specially designed games and activities for all types of mobility.

Fitzwater said all the funding so far has been out of her own pocket.

"I have a job, so some of my money went to this," she said. "And the hospitals we've dealt with have some resources. But other than that, it's just been blood, sweat and tears. This money will really help."

To learn more, visit www.pepintl.org.

Contact writer Candace Nelson at Candace.Nelson@dailymail.com or 304-348-5148. Follow her at www.twitter.com/Candace07.


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