Shared from the 3/14/2017 Mon Valley Independent eEdition

EF project helps sick children’s families

Central Elementary students filled 70 backpacks with basic necessities for the Zack Packs program.

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Submitted Central Elementary school fifth-graders Giovanna Ferraro, Alyssa Terza and Olivia Kristen pose with Zack Packs, which are filled with basic necessities a family with a child in the hospital would need. The Zack Packs were delivered to local hospitals Wednesday.

Elizabeth Forward students participated in an effort to help people who have young family members unexpectedly admitted to hospitals.

First-grade teacher Denise Kahler brought the Zack Packs program to Central Elementary School after it was introduced to the district at Greenock Elementary in 2011.

Through the program, backpacks are filled with basic necessities to allow family members to stay in the hospital while ailing children undergo treatment.

Students in kindergarten through grade five collected such items as journals, snack bags, toothbrushes and body wash to place in the Zack Packs.

Each class collected a different item.

The program benefits Zachary’s Mission, which supports families of ailing children by providing basic necessities and financial assistance, as well as programs that promote emotional well being.

Zachary’s Mission, founded in 2010 by Patricia and Robert Vince of Greensburg, is named in memory of their son, Zachary, who died from a congenital heart defect in 2008 when he was just 2 weeks old.

Kahler, a Zachary’s Mission board member, became involved with the organization because her son, A.J., died in 2008 from a similar condition while at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. He was only 7 weeks old.

Kahler said she met Patricia Vince in the Aching Arms support group sponsored through the Mario Lemieux Children’s Home.

“She wanted to start a foundation because when you lose a child, you need to do something,” Kahler said of Patricia Vince. “That was our way to give back. We were both parents who were in Children’s Hospital with our loved ones and, unfortunately, both of our children didn’t make it.

“We want to do whatever we can to help the other families there.”

Because February is Congenital Heart Awareness Month, Central Elementary students took part in the Zack Packs program in memory of A.J Kahler.

“Zachary’s dad was actually the one who came up with the Zack Pack because when you’re there, you have to carry all of these things around,” Kahler said of time spent in a hospital. “I never left my child’s bed because I always wanted to be there.”

More than 30 Central Elementary fifth-graders filled 70 Zack Packs, which were delivered to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, Children’s Home and Lemieux Family Center, Children’s Institute of Squirrel Hill and West Penn Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

“Obviously it fulfills something I need to do, and it helps Zachary’s Mission by getting the donations,” Kahler said. “But it’s also teaching the kids community service.

“Every kid got a thank you letter from Zachary’s Mission and myself. It’s just teaching them that there are other people in this world that are having a bad day, and your little bit of help is really helping them.”

Kahler said other schools in the region fill Zack Packs for Zachary’s Mission.

“Schools let us know when they need community service projects,” Kahler said. “Sometimes the Boy Scouts do it; they’ll contact Zachary’s Mission and they’ll say, ‘Hey, our troop would like to pack or our baseball team would like to pack.’”

She said schools mostly participate in the initiative. Kahler said the donation drive does more than help families in need.

She said a Central Elementary kindergarten student underwent open-heart surgery last year and the child’s family received help.

“You teach those kids what it means to be a caring community,” Kahler said. “That’s more or less what I want the kids to get out of it.”

Kahler, who has been teaching for more than 20 years, said she is also involved with the Children’s Heart Foundation, which raises money to research congenital heart defects.

While she is involved with the national organization to help raise awareness, Kahler said her work with Zachary’s Mission is an effort to give back to Children’s Hospital for its efforts to save her son’s life and to promote help for families of ailing children.

“I’ve been in their shoes. You don’t want anybody to have to be there,” Kahler said.

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