'They Didn't Talk About Their Daddies, They Were Just Happy to Have Found Each Other'

When Pamela Becker's husband was dying of cancer, she attended a support group to help her cope with the difficulties of caring for him. But when their daughter Zoe, who was 6 at the time, asked her to find a playdate for her with another child her age whose father had cancer, Becker didn't quite know where to turn.

She contacted hospital wards, cancer associations and social workers, to no avail. Through word of mouth, she finally found another child in a similar situation who, like the Coleman-Becker family, also lives in Ramat Aviv. The two girls met at a local playground and, for two hours, ignored all the other kids.

"They didn't talk about cancer, didn't talk about their daddies, but they were so happy to have found each other," said Becker, a New York-raised freelance marketing director for hi-tech companies and mother of three. "They just played, and I could just see what it gave to Zoe - it just lifted her."

Now, a mere four months after Becker's husband, British immigrant Jeremy Coleman, died of stomach cancer, she is establishing an organization intended to help kids like Zoe - children in Israel who have a family member with cancer or who have lost a relative to cancer - find each other. Called Jeremy's Circle, the group aims to create a playdate database and hold events geared toward giving such children a good time, secure in the knowledge that they are not alone - while letting their already overburdened parents (or surviving parent) have a few hours' respite.

"The whole concept is that we want to provide fun support for kids who are living with cancer in their family or have suffered a cancer loss," said Becker, 38. "We see that there isn't a place for kids to go, and we want to provide it."

Watching Becker with her 5-year-old son Leo makes it easy to see just how helpful a break must have been for her while she was caring for her husband. Oozing mischievous energy, Leo jumped from the coffee table to the couch where his mother was sitting, and from there clambered onto her shoulders. "I normally eat half my meals with Leo on my shoulders," Becker said, appearing unfazed that her gray and white pinstriped blazer was being crushed by her son and his orange shirt, which she had futilely suggested be replaced by a cleaner top.

The idea for Jeremy's Circle arose out of discussions that Coleman - who was 39 when he died, in July - had with Becker and his two sisters when they saw the effect of his illness on the family. While in the hospital for treatment, Coleman, who grew up in and near London, put his years as a business strategy consultant to more personal use, working with his wife to create "a kind of business plan" for the organization, said Becker.

Jeremy's Circle is planning to hold its first event over Hanukkah on December 26, in Yehud. The group has 20 children interested in attending but aims for 50 participants aged 5-13. The organization will provide transportation and (kosher) food, in keeping with Becker's idea that all parents should have to do "is open the door and push the kids out."

The group is raising money to cover the event's costs and plans to have more events as well as a five-day summer camp. The circle, which recently launched its Web site, www.jeremyscircle.org, also wants to expand beyond English and Hebrew speakers to include those whose mother tongue is Russian or Arabic. "We're targeting any kid who's got cancer in their family," said Becker.

That pool is pretty large: Based on figures from the National Cancer Institute in the United States, around 5,600 of the some 23,500 people diagnosed with cancer in the country every year are parents of children or teenagers.

Becker has already had a few of those children at her house for a barbecue over the Sukkot holiday, when she invited parents from her support group to bring their kids. Eleven children showed up -- including the three Coleman-Becker children: Zoe, now 7; Leo; and Gil, 2. Becker sees the barbecue as something of a dry run for the first Jeremy's Circle event.

Shmuel Samuel, a Kiryat Ono resident who attended the barbecue with his 16-year-old son Gal, said such events are important to help children see for themselves that they're not the only ones dealing with cancer in their families. "The significance is primarily to know that there are other children who are in your situation," said Samuel, whose wife Ofira died of cancer last year.

'How lucky we were'

Though it seems odd to talk about good fortune when tragedy hits, in certain ways the Coleman-Becker family was luckier than some other families coping with cancer, especially other immigrant families.

That's because they had a support network in place: Coleman's parents moved one street over from them two months before Jeremy was diagnosed with cancer in May 2007, and a close group of friends in the country helped out with the kids.

One of the friends who occasionally watched the Coleman-Becker kids is Jonathan Shalet, who knew Coleman from their teen years in England, where they participated in the Zionist youth group Hanoar Hatzioni together. Shalet, who lives in Hod Hasharon, moved to Israel two years after Coleman - along with many of their youth group friends - and one of his kids is the same age as Zoe.

"We saw what his family went through," said Shalet, the deputy managing director of Israeli TV ratings company TNS Telegal. "We were able to give some kind of support network, but not every family going through this has that kind of network."

Becker hopes Jeremy's Circle will support other Israeli families the way Shalet and others helped her family when they needed it most.

"We had friends who would come at 10 A.M. on a Saturday to pick up the kids, and bring them back bathed, fed and happy at the end of the day," said Becker. "Jeremy was sick. I was taking care of him. Instead of watching TV and feeling the tension in the house, they went and had fun. It was just so good for my children. We talked about it a lot, about how lucky we were - and we wanted that all kids should have that."