Ladies and Gents,
As one who works in media and one who has to crank out constant copy, I know first hand how hungry journalists are for good ideas. When someone hands me a story idea, it makes my life downright easy. Most of the effort in producing a newsletter, a column or an article goes into finding something interesting to say. Actually saying it is the easy part.
So, it comes as a great surprise that every media outlet I contacted with a great human interest story has turned a deaf ear, a blind eye and a 404 error on their cyber consciousness. Even the outlets that got back to me to say, "Hey, that sounds like a good story!" have dropped the ball.
So, I am going to take advantage of my own on-line reach and print the story here. If you have any pull with an appropriate media - national, local or volunteer - please let me know.
One day in March 2010, Sandy Cohen Ajzenman, wife, mother and good neighbor in Woodbury, NY was given life changing news. She had cancer. It was in her brain and it was terminal. This is a story about how a community came together to bring comfort and relief to Sandy and her family.
It all started in January 2010 when Sandy experienced a seizure. Two months later, the doctors told her it was a tumor or glioma and due to its location it was inoperable. She began treatment immediately.
The prognosis for an inoperable glioma is not good and is generally thought to be one year to 18 months. Despite continuous treatment, she took a turn for the worse in May 2011 and by July the decision was made to cease the treatments. Sometimes the treatment can be as bad as the disease and this one came with many serious physical side effects and made her extremely weak.
A few weeks later, Karen Gaspin, one of Sandy's best friends and her next door neighbor until moving to California in 2001, came to visit. What she found was the family - husband Mo Ajzenman and daughter Rachel, then age 17 and a newly minted Syosset High School graduate - overwhelmed by the daunting task of being sole caretakers.
Son Zack, then age 22, had just graduated from Ohio State and was away in Europe with friends. He was called back home in early July to be with his mom.
Older sister Heather, then 25, and was working at Washington University in St. Louis where she is completing her doctorate in occupational therapy.
With the family's consent, Karen invited some of their mutual friends from the neighborhood - Stephanie Abada, Jackee Buckvar, Jodie Cohen and Susan Kahn - to visit and they were shocked at how ill she was. No one in the neighborhood really had any idea of her condition. In fact, Sandy did not talk about the cancer and never gave up hope. But now on most days she did not have the strength to leave the house.
It was then that Karen got the idea creating a community effort to help.
Jodie quickly volunteered to bring this idea to fruition and "Sandy's Helpers" was born. Both ladies made phone calls to find other volunteers and Jodie became point person in charge of scheduling. Karen would be the groups contact with the family to keep everyone updated and answer any questions that came up. With a small group at first, Karen, Jodie and friends Stephanie Abada and Joanne Shenker got the ball rolling.
The effort started slowly. Karen had not lived in the area for many years. And because Jodie's children did not overlap in age with Sandy's the two were not close. It made figuring out who to call a challenge.
The first few phone calls resulted in limited success but soon people got wind of what was going on and an offered to join in. Many of them knew Sandy but not well. One person did not know the family at all but asked to join because she just wanted to help.
Each workday, someone would deliver a full dinner, from main course to side dish and dessert, so that the family would not have to worry about shopping, preparing and cleaning. The variety of meals was impressive, catered directly to Sandy's vegetarian lifestyle and often included her favorite treat, a little bit of dark chocolate. And for the family, especially Mo, eating right helped tremendously during this stressful time in their lives.
It did not take long for the effort to grow to include more than 30 families who have volunteered for almost eight months, five days a week, with no interruption. With Rachel now away at the University of Hartford, the group delivered meals for Sandy, Mo and Zack, who now works in Manhattan but lives at home to help out.
Under Jodie's direction, Sandy's Helpers all stayed in touch by phone and email to monitor daily assignments and coordinate menus to avoid duplication. And the list continued to grow. It was not a surprise to see a weekly email from someone new wanting to join in. Some people wanted to help their friend Sandy. Others said it was the right thing to do.
In order to make it as easy for the family as possible and respect their privacy or even lack of desire on any given day to face others, all meals were placed in a cooler on the Ajzenman's porch. The only instructions were to deliver by 5 pm, respect Sandy's vegetarian choice and do not ring the doorbell. However, Sandy’s dog Drake barked at each delivery. Everyone tried to be quiet so as not to disturb the family but Drake would not have it!
Not one of Sandy's Helpers quit since this began as they continued to create delicious, nutritious meals for the family and provide unspoken support. And one family, Shari Dorfman and Ruth Rosenberg, insisted on cooking every week and took care of major holidays, too.
Before she got sick, Sandy was a special education teacher. She also helped many kids and their families as an advocate for special needs in the school system through SEPTA (Special Education Parent-Teacher Association). And since 1998, Sandy was a volunteer, advocate and director at HorseAbility, a local therapeutic horseback riding school that runs, among other programs, a week-long program in August for children with autism and other developmental disorders. The kids - and parents - loved her.
A few years ago, Sandy cared for her own parents who were both very ill until they passed away a mere two weeks apart. She also travelled back and forth from her Woodbury home to Brooklyn to help Mo's parents, too.
And like a good mother, she sacrificed so her kids could have what they needed. Zack had the opportunity to enjoy hockey. The girls, especially Heather, enjoyed competitive horseback riding. It was not unusual for her to prepare food at 1 am for the kids when they came home late and were hungry!
Sandy always had a good attitude about her situation. "It is what it is," she would say. "I do the best I can." She tried to stay active, sometimes even getting to the gym, until it became too difficult for her.
And unfortunately, as Sandy's condition worsened it became even harder for the family to care for her while trying to maintain normal activities such as work and school. Starting in early autumn, home healthcare aide Zareda Hidalgo stayed with Sandy to allow Mo to attend to business in the city. The family could not say enough about Zareda and how much she helped.
In addition, some of Sandy's Helpers would stop by to talk to her, tell her stories and show her photos. They so were pleased to hear that she loved the food - and their company.
When it has became difficult for Sandy to swallow certain foods, the Sandy's Helpers email list was immediately abuzz with new ideas of what to prepare. Recipes for veggie burgers and butternut squash soup among others were immediately claimed.
Sandy's Helpers is a group of amazing group of women, and a few men, that was always looking to do more. It has also shown Mo, Zack, Rachel and Heather the true meaning of community and support and is a testament to the love that everyone felt for Sandy.
Sadly, Sandy finally succumbed to the disease on February 12. She fought for more than two years, defying the odds for an ordeal that typically ends far sooner.
At her memorial service, even through their grief, it was clear that the family appreciated everyone's efforts. Sandy's Helpers made a difference.
Side bar -
"The support has been so overwhelming that it brings tears to my eyes on many an occasion. I simply cannot fathom the support and love that has arisen from "Sandy's Helpers" and what it has done for my kids and me. Our family now understands what true friends Sandy has made over the years and the outpouring is reflective of that special friendship. February marks the eighth month of meals being delivered to us nightly (as well as many lunches) but the thoughts and prayers continue relentlessly with unconditional offerings of help. I want to thank you. This story can and should be an inspiration to all!"
- Mo Ajzenman
All, thanks for reading. I withheld the names of the rest of these wonderful people just because this is not the best forum for such a message. Again, if you know a media outlet of any size that might like this story, please let me know. I am not looking for any compensation and they would be free to rip it apart and rework it in their own style - in print, television or anything else.