SALT LAKE CITY — The moment Amanda Flamm heard her young daughter, Amelia, had leukemia, she was terrified.
"It really is the most horrific thing that you can hear, that your child has cancer," Flamm said.
That was 18 months ago. Today, 5-year-old Amelia is doing well after multiple treatments, good care and a growing support system in Utah called HopeKids.
HopeKids gives Amelia a chance to get together with other children who are going through the same type of thing. They participate in fun activities and outings, share their experiences, share some laughs and smiles, and start to understand they are not facing their illnesses alone.
Amelia squirms in her seat as she excitedly chats about her experiences with HopeKids and her treatments at Primary Children's Medical Center.
"They give you chemo and medicine," she said matter-of-factly.
Amelia is also pretty brave when it comes to all of the shots she's endured.
"It doesn't even hurt me, but it hurts all the other kids," she said. "So, they cry. But, it doesn't even hurt me. So, I don't even make a peep."
She really brightens up when we talk about HopeKids and the friends she's made at activities that range from monthly movies to camping and princess parties.
"She just loves to be with other kids that have cancer, just like she does," said her mother.
Amelia and 40 other children and their families attended a reptile show at the Salt Lake City Library. They squealed and squirmed as they got a close look at tarantulas, lizards and a Burmese python.
All of the children have life-threatening illnesses. Forty percent of them have cancer, and not all of them will survive. Others battle cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy and a myriad of illnesses that are very rare. When you go through the kind of medical routine that most of them endure for a very long time, HopeKids offers a critical infusion of fun.
"Having something to look forward to and hope for, an activity to go to, just gets her through that day," said Amanda Flamm.
She first heard about HopeKids at the oncology clinic at the hospital. It hasn't been in Utah long, but it's growing quickly.
C.R. Oldham and his wife, Amy, started the Utah chapter of HopeKids in 2008 with 30 kids and their families. They now number 350, and add a new kid every other day from families throughout Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and parts of Colorado and Nevada. The kids are treated at Primary Children's, the University of Utah, Shriners and other hospitals.
"We want to make sure they always have something to look forward to," Oldham said.
In 2004, his 5-year-old daughter, Abby, was diagnosed with cancer. She had a lesion on her brain and had surgery two days later to remove it. She went through 18 months of treatment and more surgeries before she passed away.
The Oldhams lived in Arizona at the time and discovered HopeKids there. Several years later, they came to Utah to start this chapter, even though they knew no one here.
One of the keys of success for HopeKids is that it includes the whole family, so they all can look forward to a break.
"We're going to go together as a family," Oldham said, describing why the kids like it. "I'm going to be surrounded by kids that are just like me. Nobody is going to stare at me because my head is bald, because there are going to be 10 or 15 other kids in the audience whose heads are also bald."
When Amanda Flamm learns about another family going through their own medical struggles, she tells them about HopeKids.
"I get emotional when I talk about HopeKids, because to have that support of other families that know what you're going through is priceless," she said.
Many families are wiped out financially by the illness, but they can participate in these events without having to worry about that. They are funded by generous donations from individuals and businesses in the community, and held a dinner auction last month.
One mother said the greatest gift of the HopeKids events is that they get to see their children smile, have fun, and just be kids. They all spend far too much of their time at the hospital, and this is the break the whole family needs.
"It's an instant support group," Amanda Flamm explained. "It's an instant community that knows exactly what you're going through."