Cover Photo: Courtesy of Kythe

Kythe has been doing its mission of assisting paediatric cancer patients for 30 years now but is gearing up for busier days up ahead

The idea was just to do simple volunteer work: recruit student volunteers and visit hospitals once a week. But opportunities began to open, and donations started to come in. “Oh dear, we must account for these,” reacted Girlie Garcia (now Lorenzo), co-founder of Kythe, the erstwhile volunteer group-turned-full blown non-profit.

She asked her father, the late Atty Ramon P Garcia of the Philippine Stock Exchange and Meralco, for guidance. “He told me to run it like a corporation but maintain the heart of an NGO,” she recalled.

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Lorenzo started Kythe in 1992 together with fellow student Icar Castro. They were both taking up their master’s degree in psychology at the Ateneo de Manila and through their coursework, experienced their first interaction with paediatric cancer patients. They visited hospitals and spent time with these children, which did a lot of good not only for the patients but their families as well. They named their group Kythe, which is derived from a Scottish word that means “to manifest oneself thru simple sharing and togetherness”, which they picked up from an article of Fr Joseph Galdon, SJ. “Later on, we came across a book about it which says that angels communicate thru kything, no words needed,” Lorenzo adds. 

By next year in 2022, 30 years would have passed. Time has shaped Kythe into a well-run, established foundation composed of trained professionals providing psychosocial support to over 18,000 children with cancer and other chronic illnesses and their families. Through the years, it can count 1,200 (and growing) volunteers and eight affiliate hospitals (soon to be nine).

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Kythe is the only foundation in the Philippines that offers the American programme, Child Life Services (CLS), and is certified by the Association of Child Life Specialists in the US. The programme, Lorenzo explains, can be encapsulated in the acronym PETALS: Play with the children, Educate them about their medical condition, Tend to the emotional needs of their family, Assist the child during medical procedures especially if it is an invasive one, Lend financial and medical support, Support parental involvement to empower the parents. 

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Lorenzo was the first to earn a certification after completing her Child Life internships at the University of California San Francisco Hospital. Two followed in her footsteps: Dr Angie Sievert-Fernandez and Ninin Sumpaico-Jose.

Clocking 17 years of service now in Kythe, having started when she was still in college, Jose is considered the longest-staying staff. Currently taking up her doctorate at De La Salle University, she was certified as a CLS in 2017 after over a year of online schooling. “You could say I have been lucky to have found out early on what I wanted to do in life,” Jose says about her first and only job so far. Not that she hasn’t received other job offers. “I never seriously entertained other opportunities that came my way although I did consider those which can bring in Kythe into the schedule,” she explains.

Lorenzo does not see Kythe as the end of the line for professionals like Jose. In fact, she believes the career path is going to be brighter because of the passage of the National Integrated Cancer Control Act (NICCA), principally authored by former Sen JV Ejercito, which requires government and private hospitals to provide psycho-social child life services if they have paediatric cancer patients. “We are expecting a demand for training of hospital personnel in the CLS programme. Today, we are the only certified group to do this in the country. There may be other groups certified soon but Kythe can already lay claim to 30 years of experience,” she says.

Kythe has also received requests from foreign students to train with them, an activity it has started to do before the pandemic hit. Lorenzo sees this resuming once the situation is deemed safe. Because of this expected increase in local demand for CLS trainers, recruitment is top priority now for Lorenzo. “We have to increase our pool of trainers,” she says, as she searches in schools and among practising psychologists.

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In the hospitals, Kythe trains clinical psychologists, nurses, social workers, midwives and other organic personnel who may be assigned by management to go into training. “These medical institutions, Lorenzo says, are just more than glad for their staff to learn CLS. “When a child can comply with medical procedures, he gets well faster and is discharged earlier; and the room can be used again for the next patient. In the lab, instead of spending say an hour for a procedure because the child is crying, Kythe prepares the child to stay still; and so, the hospitals can service more patients. CLS addresses basic economics,” she elaborates.

Preparing the child, Lorenzo adds, involves the use of metaphors. “For an X-ray procedure, we liken it to taking a picture so the child must stay still. For a chemo, we created a character, Kapitan Chemo, who is shaped like a syringe, who is there to help and not to hurt. Of course, we do not say chemo will not hurt but we tell the children it will not hurt as much if they keep their hands steady,” she explains.

Anyone who has undergone a Kythe experience will be touched, for sure. The award-winning director Brillante Mendoza, for one, got to know the children and did a film about them. To immerse himself he visited the children in the hospitals quite often and even did a puppet show for them.

“Once you get to know Kythe, you will fall in love with Kythe,” Lorenzo quotes a volunteer. Beautifully put, with living proof in the staff and volunteers who have stayed on and on to make life more bearable and death more beautiful for these young angels.

This story was originally published in Tatler Philippines' November 2021 issue. Download it on Magzter for free.


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