Nonprofit helps kids with cancer stay connected to classmates

A nonprofit organization is helping kids with cancer stay connected to their classmates, even while they receive treatment away from school.

Heidi Feyerherm-Smith said her daughter, Chloe, loved school and she loved monkeys. Chloe was 6 years old when she was diagnosed with Diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, an aggressive brain cancer. She was 7 years old when she passed away in 2007.

In 2008, Heidi formed the Love, Chloe Foundation. She said the hospital gave them a little bear with a backpack when Chloe was diagnosed, and that’s where the “Monkey In My Chair” idea came from.

“Chloe Bear went on field trips and went to music and PE, and Chloe felt like she was really still part of that classroom,” said Heidi.

The Monkey In My Chair kit comes with a stuffed monkey that stays at the child’s school. While the child is in the hospital getting treatment, the monkey keeps their seat warm back in their classroom.

“[Chloe] didn’t lose her hair ... She didn’t go through traditional chemotherapy, but she was on a high dose of steroids. So she went from being a little 40 pound petite girl to being 80 pounds,” said Heidi. “That alone was an important thing to educate her classmates, that the way she might look different is different than how another child might look different, so it can be really scary for kids just not knowing.”

Heidi and her family are from Salina, Kan., but they send Monkey In My Chair kits to families all over the country. They send out around 900 kits per year.

Kits include a children’s book and a guide for teachers to help answer questions, along with a smaller monkey for the child to keep with them while their big monkey fills their seat at school. The big monkey has a backpack that can travel to and from school, so classmates can send home cards and letters.

Rhonda Packard’s son, Calyn, was diagnosed with medulloblastoma in January 2020, and spent several weeks at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. She said the book was a great tool that helped the kids in his class understand why he wasn’t there.

“First grade, those are pretty young, little kids that don’t understand a lot of cancer,” said Rhonda. “Cancer is really scary at any age, and they certainly didn’t understand it, so the book and the monkey was great help.”

Calyn is now cancer-free and back with his friends at Kildare Public School, near Ponca City. Thanks to the monkey in his chair, his classmates didn’t forget him while he was in Memphis.

“Calyn loved the monkey. He thought that was just absolutely the coolest thing. He got a lot of miles out of it, he loved it,” said Rhonda. “He has kind of personalized him. He has Calyn’s first pair of glasses on that he ever had.”

Heidi said one thing that she didn’t anticipate when she started Monkey in My Chair is the impact it would have on families that have lost a child.

“Several families that have a child who has passed away, and then when that child’s class goes through graduation, they have that monkey sit through graduation,” said Heidi. “It’s so important, when you lose a child, it doesn’t just go away to everyone. So you always want their story, their memory, you want to know that people remember them.”

Any school or family can request the Monkey In My Chair kit at no cost, and you can sponsor one for $75.