Stars in jars deliver messages of hope to kids with cancer

A local charity is helping young cancer patients find strength and hope by sharing messages from survivors who've been through treatment themselves.

Ottawa charity sends jars full of positive messages from survivors to children undergoing treatment

Nathan Adolphe and Natania Abebe are co-founders of the charity Stars in a Jar. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

A local charity is helping young cancer patients find strength and hope by sharing messages from survivors who've been through treatment themselves. 

The charity, called Stars in a Jar, aims to give children undergoing treatment at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario a picture of life after cancer. 

'It really helps them reframe their cancer experience.'- Natania Abebe

Natania Abebe is one of the charity's founders. She said the seeds of Stars in a Jar were planted she was volunteering on the oncology floor at CHEO a couple years ago.

Abebe was a teenager at the time, and said seeing children suffering was an eye-opening experience. 

"I was pretty shocked to see kids suffer in that way," she said in an interview with CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

"And the thing I noticed the most volunteering on the floor was that the kids drew a lot more strength and resilience amongst themselves.... And I noticed that if you're not going through it, it's very hard to understand and get on their level."

That's when the idea came to her.

"What if there was a way to have a survivor connect with a kid who's going through this?"

Stars in jars

The charity has a roster of cancer survivors who submit handwritten messages that are then folded into origami stars by volunteers and placed into jars. Each jar contains about 90 stars. 

Any child who's undergoing cancer treatment at CHEO, or their families, can visit the charity's website and request a jar from a survivor they feel a connection to.

"It's been very positive," Abebe said. "It really helps them reframe their cancer experience because there's someone on the other side who's seen it, just like them."

Students at École élémentaire Alain-Fortin in Orléans helped write messages and fold origami stars for the charity. (Stars in a Jar)

'There's always a positive'

Nathan Adolphe, another co-founder of the charity, is a cancer survivor who now works in cancer research. He hand-delivers some of the jars to families at CHEO. 

"I had rhabdomyosarcoma when I was two years old.... It's a scary sounding thing to have," Adolphe told Ottawa Morning. "I don't remember much of the treatment itself but I do remember the after-care treatment, which is a lot of returns to the hospital, a lot of followup."

Adolphe was also diagnosed with a brain tumour when he was 18, and went through the experience all over again. 

"Everyone's story is unique," he said. "And that's what we want to build with our website ... [with] different survivors; each of them have their unique story people can resonate with."

Messages help

He recalled one jar delivery about a week ago that stood out. Before Adolphe had even returned to his desk, the boy who had received the jar had emailed a photo of himself with it.

"He was so excited and so happy," Adolphe said.

Later the boy's mother told Adolphe her son reads the messages from the jar when he feels like he can't get through the day. 

Adolphe said the cancer journey is an especially hard thing for children, who are forced to face their mortality much too young. But without that experience, he would never have met his friend Natania Abebe or started Stars in a Jar. 

"There may be some bad things that happen to you, but there's always a positive to them if you really look at it," he said.