Celebrating the Class of 2020
HACKENSACK, NJ – (August 25, 2020) – Hackensack Meridian Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital is pleased to announce that 29 patients who have undergone treatment at Hackensack Meridian Children’s Cancer Institute graduated in a virtual commencement ceremony celebrating the Class of 2020 earlier this summer. These graduates were honored by Hackensack University Medical Center leadership, sports figures, and celebrities who recognized their academic achievements and graduation from high school.
The Children’s Cancer Institute provides treatment to children through age 22 who suffer from all types of cancers and blood diseases. At its inception in 1987, it was the first pediatric cancer program in New Jersey and has since grown to become the largest pediatric program in the state. The Children’s Cancer Institute offers innovative clinical trials, groundbreaking research initiatives, and cutting-edge therapies to target diseases, as well as personalized care to meet the different needs of each child. Services provided include hematology, comprehensive sickle cell treatment, pediatric stem cell transplant programs and the Cure and Beyond Survivorship program.
The 2020 graduates celebrated in the ceremony include those who were treated at the Children’s Cancer Institute as young children, as well as those who have been treated during their last year of high school. The commencement ceremony acknowledged these students for their accomplishments both inside and outside the classroom.
The virtual commencement ceremony, organized by Sarah Donnangelo, school liaison, Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital, was the first of its kind. Having worked closely with patients and families for more than 20 years at the Children’s Hospital, Donnangelo recognized the need to join families and children who were treated at the Institute in celebrating their accomplishments.
“This is a celebration I’ve had the pleasure of organizing for the past 22 years, and I really did not think it would happen this year due to social distancing and COVID-19,” remarked Donnangelo. “But surprise, with a little help from some friends, we came together virtually to celebrate all of you. This is truly one of my favorite things to do each year because it reminds me that despite all of the obstacles we are sometimes forced to deal with in our lives, they do not prevent us from achieving our goals or living our dreams.”
“This celebration of life is held in honor of those kids who persevered,” said Mark D. Sparta, FACHE, president and chief hospital executive, Hackensack University Medical Center, executive vice president, Population Health, Hackensack Meridian Health. “This year’s group includes graduates who come from all over northern New Jersey. Some have been followed since birth while others range from still being on active treatment, to being many years off therapy and followed in our Cure and Beyond program.”
“I am incredibly humbled and delighted to be a part of your celebration and congratulate each and every one of you on your accomplishments,” said Sparta during the ceremony. “Although this year’s celebration is somewhat of a modified version due to the social distancing requirements of COVID-19, it is still a very important celebration to us and should be to you, as well.”
Sparta also paid tribute to physician Frances Flug, M.D. and read a line from Dr. Seuss’ Oh the Places You’ll Go, as Dr. Flug did year after year in honor of graduates’ journey ahead. “I’d be remiss if I didn’t also pay tribute to one of our beloved physicians at the Children’s Cancer Institute, who was a staple at this celebration year after year.” Dr. Flug passed away in April 2019, but had provided care for many of the graduates over their multi-year course of treatment.
Corporate and community scholarships awarded to the Class of 2020 were announced, including the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund’s 2020 Barry Family Scholarship to Sean O’Malley and the 2020 Tom Coughlin Jay Fund Dell Scholarship awarded to William Coyle. A Radio City Rockette also offered words of praise to Gabrielle Peko on earning the Garden of Dreams Inspire Scholarship.
Three graduates received the Kyle Egan Scholarship: Ashanti Columbie, Caylin Batt, and Jesus Sanchez. A special tribute in memory of Kyle Egan, who would have joined his fellow Children’s Cancer Institute graduates, also took place. Kyle was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in January 2018 and he passed away at age 17 in November 2019. Paige Egan, his mother, shared encouraging words with the graduates.
“High school graduation is one of the most important milestones in our life,” said Alfred Gillio, M.D., director, Children’s Cancer Institute, Hackensack Meridian Children’s Health. “You have struggled with many hematologic and oncologic diseases, and received many types of therapy and today is your day. I commend you for your great effort to finish your work and graduate from high school during your illness in these very difficult times.”
“I also want to applaud the families of the graduates,” Dr. Gillio continued. “Many of you have had a big role in continuing the education process. The medical staff at the hospital is very excited about your graduation. We have two missions at Hackensack University Medical Center – first to deliver the best, most up-to-date care and second, to preserve the quality of the life of our patients. And for those of you in school, that means continuing your high school education.”
“Graduations are typically filled with speeches trying to inspire young people heading out on the next phase of life to achieve great things,” said Judy Aschner, M.D., physician-in-chief of the Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital. “This graduation is different, because it is all of you who have inspired me, and all of us celebrating your graduations today. You have inspired us with your bravery, your resilience, and your ability to see beyond hard times to a better future. You are extraordinary.”
Bruce Buffer, renowned boxing personality, announced the start of the video montage, which highlighted all of the graduates’ names and photos. “I know you’ve been treated for cancer and blood disorders at some point during your life, but now you all are truly the champions,” Buffer declared. “You can do this! Today is truly the first day of the rest of your lives.”
Pre-recorded commencement remarks from former New York Giants football player Mark Herzlich, dancer Valentin Chmerkovskiy of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, and NBC 4 New York reporter David Ushery were also shared with the graduates and their families.
“I wish you congratulations and all the best in your future plans, whatever that may be, and know that you have come out of a special program and an institution that really cares about you,” said Herzlich. “You are in a brotherhood and sisterhood with me, with survivors, and with people who not only have survived, but are striving after.”
“This group specifically has gone through so much already,” said Chmerkovskiy. “You have overcome so many obstacles. Beyond just academics, which are hard enough, if anyone can handle this, it is you guys. You are the definition of strength and resilience, with a never give up attitude. I am so proud you, and I don’t even know you personally, but I am so proud of you because you didn’t defy the odds, you didn’t just persevere, you got an education, and developed.”
“I had a chance to read a short bio of each one of you and I am amazed, not by only what you have endured and by what you’ve learned, but what you teach us about perseverance and strength,” shared Ushery. “For some kids, graduating from high school is their greatest challenge, but we know you have all been confronted with real challenges long before today. You faced the challenge of a life threatening disease. You know how to be a strong. You’re fighters. You’ve all learned how powerful you are, and with that power, you now have the will to do anything you want in this world. Congratulations to all of the graduates, parents and everyone from the Children’s Cancer Institute who helped you along the way. From our family at NBC 4 New York to yours, we honor you and congratulate you.”
About Hackensack Meridian Children’s HealthHackensack Meridian Children’s Health provides the most comprehensive and highest level of quality care to young patients in the state of New Jersey. The children’s network is comprised of two children’s hospitals – Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital at Hackensack University Medical Center in Hackensack and K. Hovnanian Children’s Hospital at Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune – and a large network of pediatric subspecialists and pediatricians. Hackensack Meridian Children’s Health hospitals are the only two in New Jersey to be ranked among the top 50 in the nation for pediatric cancer care by U.S. News and World Report. Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital also ranks among the top 50 in the nation for pediatric neurology and neurosurgery. Visit www.hackensackmerdianhealth.org/kids for more information about Hackensack Meridian Children’s Health.