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Samir Shrestha: Creating a caring space for children with cancer

Anushka Nepal

Anushka Nepal

Samir Shrestha: Creating a caring space for children with cancer

Shrestha didn’t have the needed resources to financially assist children with cancer. But he was a steady source of emotional support, which, for many families, brought a lot of relief

Samir Shrestha, 37, wanted to make the world a better place for children. He recalls wanting to work for children’s rights ever since he was old enough to understand its importance. Working with children who have cancer, however, was a spur-of-the-moment decision.

It all started when he went on a cycling rally across Bangladesh and India. The rally was a form of demonstration to protect the rights of street children. Seeing those children in vulnerable conditions was heartbreaking. When he came back to Nepal, he started asking around to get a better idea of their situation. “I found out there are many organizations working for children’s rights. There were orphanages and other forms of support,” he says, “But none of them focused on supporting children with cancer.” 

This was why he started volunteering at the oncology ward at Kanti Children’s Hospital in Maharajgunj, Kathmandu. Shrestha laments that he didn’t have the needed resources to financially assist these children. But he was a steady source of emotional support, which, for many families, brought a lot of relief. “They would tell me how they were feeling. Being able to talk about their problems lessened it a little,” he says.

Growing up without a father since he was 12, Shrestha knew what it was like to lose your sense of belonging. Despite his basic needs being met and his uncle (with whom he lived after moving to Kathmandu) being kind to him, he never really felt at home without his father’s presence. He wanted to give the children he worked with what he never had—a feeling of comfort and belonging. As a regular volunteer, the children would look forward to his visits when he would read to them or help them with their meals. “The hospital would call me quite often as the children would not eat without me,” he reminisces. 

Shrestha says what he saw while working at the hospital was traumatic. The children were no doubt going through a lot but watching the parents wait around helplessly was even worse. Sometimes, the doctors used to give them money to go home or eat something, he says. The situation was as bleak as it could get as many didn’t have money to even buy little things like masks and gloves. When faced with such a financial crisis, it was difficult for the parents to be emotionally available for their children.

“I realized I had to do something to bridge that gap, provide the support that the parents couldn’t,” he says. So, in August 2006, he established the ‘Dirghajeevi Voluntary Group’ that worked in collaboration with the oncology ward at the Kanti Children’s Hospital until 2015. The NGO was established with just 12 members and they had no outside help. The members invested what they could to start off on the noble venture.

Their first priority was to make the oncology ward at the hospital more child-friendly. Shrestha says the space looked like an abandoned corridor. The volunteers wanted to give it a much-needed facelift. As days went by and they continued with the work, people reached out to Shrestha and his team. They wanted to help. However, Shrestha didn’t want to take monetary help. He wanted them to visit the hospital, see what they were doing, and decide for themselves how they could contribute.

A lot of foreign sponsors, he says, were happy to hear that. Many pitched in to give the oncology ward a complete makeover. Some scrubbed floors and painted the walls while others put up boards and nameplates to demarcate the space. “We even received cupboards and many other essential things,” says Shrestha.

After a decade of working exclusively with children at the hospital, he thought he hadn’t been able to do enough. Something felt amiss, he says. They had built a nice ward for the children and would help the parents when needed but they were unable to provide the emotional support the children desperately needed. When the children went home, they often had no one to support or counsel them, he says.

In 2018, with a vision to create a psychologically and psychosocially supportive environment for these children, Shrestha started a daycare center. The Loving Heart Daycare Center, located in Imadol, Lalitpur, is a space that focuses on the mental well-being of children who are cancer survivors. The daycare has everything a child would need to heal from the trauma—from counselors to individual and communal activities. “It’s like a big support group to make these children feel heard, seen, and understood,” adds Shrestha.

The establishment does not promise to provide parents with medical or financial assistance. It’s solely for psychological support. The good thing is that there is no membership fee at the daycare center. It’s free. They also have counseling sessions for parents who feel like they need some emotional support too. “It’s difficult to watch your child suffer and not be able to do much about it which is why we also provide psychological guidance to parents as and when needed,” says Shrestha. 

Recently, they hosted the ‘First Childhood Cancer Survival Meet’—an event where children who beat cancer and their parents could share their stories with other children cancer patients. The goal was to boost the morale of those currently suffering from cancer and let them know they weren’t alone as well as help parents make sense of things. The first-of-its-kind event was an immense success, says Shrestha. People left feeling unburdened and hopeful. “It was a heartwarming time and we hope to give continuity to our work to be able to make children’s battles with cancer a little less stressful,” he says.

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