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Coping with cancer in Noogieland

By profession Kathy Kurtz, 42, is a licensed social worker, but as program manager for Gilda's Club Kurtz can play in Noogieland, a place for children who have been touched by cancer.

Gilda's Club Western New York, like 21 other clubs across the country, provides social and emotional support for families dealing with cancer. It is named for the comic actress Gilda Radner, who died in 1989 from ovarian cancer.

The children who frequent the club are probably too young to have heard of Radner, but after a day in Noogieland they will know what a noogie is -- a playful head rub -- like the one Bill Murray would give Radner in those vintage "Saturday Night Live" skits from the 1970s.

Gilda's Club is on Delaware Avenue at West Ferry Street, in the former residence of William J. "Fingy" Conners Sr., onetime publisher of the Buffalo Courier-Express.

>People Talk: Tell me about Noogieland.

Kathy Kurtz: It gives children an opportunity to talk about the cancer in their lives. Children ages 4 to 11 come when their adults come, so it's structured social and emotional support in a kid-friendly way. It's not child care. It's not drop-off. No child joins Noogieland without knowing there's cancer in the family. They may not understand what it is, but they know that someone in their life has cancer.

>PT: So the parents will participate in different group sessions?

KK: Exactly. Maybe the mom is living with cancer and she's in the Wellness group, and a dad is in the Family and Friends group, and the kids are down in Noogieland. Everyone is coming in as a family.

>PT: Are kids a lot more resilient than we realize?

KK: Absolutely, and they're smart. They know when something is going on. They'll know when there's a different vibe, when the door is closed and there's conversation, or there's more doctor appointments on the calendar.

>PT: What are the children most concerned about?

KK: With kids, it will often boil down to the impact on them. "Who's going to take care of me?" and "Are you going to be OK?" In Noogieland, they can say: "I'm really mad Dad couldn't come to my soccer game because he was in the hospital."

>PT: How strong a therapy is play?

KK: For kids it's the strongest. Kids express themselves through play, so whether they're playing with dolls or puppets or crashing trucks into each other, they're expressing their world. Sometimes it's imagination, but sometimes it's reality. One night with puppets they acted out a funeral, unprompted.

>PT: Describe some of your activities.

KK: We had read a book about a girl who had superpowers to help her fight cancer, and then we made Captain Anti-Cancer and the kids picked superpowers. They said all the logical things we would think, like medicine and hospitals and doctors. But they also said he should love, and he should be funny. We've done wish trees. We've written letters to cancer. This month we made worry boxes after reading "Becky and the Worry Cup." When they have a worry, they can write it down and put in their worry box.

>PT: What is the most important rule of Noogieland?

KK: Laugh and have a good time, or play games and make friends. The most important one, other than clean up, is Rule No. 4: "I pass," so you don't have to share your feelings if you don't want to.

>PT: Is there an average length of membership in Noogieland?

KK: Oh gosh. If there's a loss, we encourage the family to let the child keep coming, because otherwise it's another loss for them. Maybe a year?

>PT: What prepared you the most for your job here?

KK: Life. I did a lot of child care. I was a nanny. The pure pleasure of being around kids was a big part.

>PT: How do you decompress?

KK: We have a really amazing staff, and incredible volunteers. We get it. We know what this work is like. We know you have to have some way of symbolizing the person you lost, and not to let it burn you out. We actually have a basket in our library, and we write the name of adult members who died on a stone, and we put it in a remembrance basket. Once a year we have a remembrance ceremony.

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