'Makes my heart glow': Fair Haven girl knows all too well how to help kids with cancer

·3 min read

The bad news came right before Christmas, making a tough situation even harder. That’s when Fair Haven resident Pia Kappy found out her 6-year-old daughter Freja had leukemia.

So Freja entered Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York and spent Christmas 2019 undergoing treatment there. Then something unexpected happened.

“Despite what seemed like our lives falling apart, our experience in the hospital was very special to us,” Kappy said.

The child-life program, MSK Kids, made the days as entertaining as possible for Freja through games and donated toys.

Freja Issing
Freja Issing

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Later, as Freja recovered, she and her family sought to pay that kindness forward, organizing their own toy drive and selling beaded bracelets on the beach to benefit the child-life program. So touched were the folks at MSK Kids that they nominated Freja to be one of two ambassadors for Stop & Shop’s annual Help Cure Childhood Cancer Campaign.

Through April 2, Freja's photo appears at the checkout counter and elsewhere in 200 Stop & Shop stores throughout the tri-state area, encouraging shoppers to round up their change to donate a buck or two for childhood cancer research at Memorial Sloan Kettering.

“It makes me feel good because maybe people can be inspired,” said Freja, who is now 9. “And I love to help other kids, too.”

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'We understand what you're going through'

As Kappy put it, “For a child, spending hours and hours in the hospital is boring.”

To alleviate the tedium for those who came after her, Freja and her family rounded up several hundred toys during the 2021 and 2022 holiday seasons.

“From a mother’s perspective, just to have a half-hour experience of playing with the toy is so valuable while you’re sitting there at the hospital,” Kappy said. "We thought this would be a really nice way for us to give back, especially to the kids at the hospital and say, ‘We understand what you’re going through.’”

Pia Kappy (center) with daughters Freja (right) and Isla (left)
Pia Kappy (center) with daughters Freja (right) and Isla (left)

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In the summer of 2022, Freja got hooked on making beaded bracelets. One day she decided to set up a stand on the beach in Bay Head, where her grandparents live, and sell them for MSK Kids. She raised $300.

Just as significantly, she told beachgoing donors the story behind the fundraiser.

“A lot people didn’t know what it meant, so we explained,” Freja said.

An ambassador was born.

“I am so proud of her,” Kappy said. “When I see how much she’s gone through and how far she’s come, despite all that, she wants to be part of this. She wants to continue this fight for other kids. She wants to make sure the kids in that position are taken care of, just as she has been.

“That just makes my heart glow."

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A life lesson

Today Freja is in second grade and feeling good. She finished treatment for leukemia in 2022 and is in remission. She wants to become a nurse one day.

For now, she’s amazed at the responses from people who have spotted her image in the stores. This is the 22nd year of the Stop & Shop campaign, which has raised $28 million for MSK Kids.

“We just did $300 selling bracelets — and thought that was huge,” Kappy said.

Every little bit helps. Next summer, Freja plans to expand her beaded-bracelet sale.

“To see her realize a 9-year-old kid can actually make an impact was amazing,” Kappy said. “That’s a life lesson for her, to know every person can help. I think this is not the end of Freja’s philanthropic activities.

“I think she’ll have a lifelong passion for it.”

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Jerry Carino is community columnist for the Asbury Park Press, focusing on the Jersey Shore’s interesting people, inspiring stories and pressing issues. Contact him at jcarino@gannettnj.com.

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Fair Haven NJ girl is face of Stop & Shop child cancer campaign