Special Preschool Gives Kids With Cancer a Sense of Normality

The Morgan Center is the only preschool in America of its kind.

ByABC News
June 2, 2010, 7:15 PM

June 9, 2010— -- Three-year-old Jessica Martell is fighting for her life. She spends most of her days in the hospital battling cancer.

Jessica can't go to preschool, play dates or birthday parties because the risk of infection from other kids is just too great. Even the mildest cough could be life-threatening.

But now she's found a place to play. It's called the Morgan Center. It's in Plainview, Long Island, New York, and it is the only preschool in the nation exclusively for kids with cancer.

Jessica's mother, Denise Martell, marvels at finally getting to watch her daughter play with other kids.

"I think I am lucky," Martell said. "I'm a lucky mom."

Answered Prayers

Nancy Zuch knows the feeling. Ten years ago, Zuch's daughter, Morgan, was diagnosed with leukemia. She and her husband, Rod, say they began to pray.

"Please, God, if you get my daughter better, I will give back the rest of my life," said Rod Zuch. "The next morning she got up and she spoke and she ate, and I am giving back."

The Zuchs are giving back with the Morgan Center. Watching Morgan's isolation from other kids during the two and a half years that she battled cancer prompted them to open the school seven years ago. Since then, it's become a haven for kids battling cancer.

The Morgan Center looks like any other school: crayons, play dough, pencils and glue sticks, but teachers have to take extra precautions. Since the children's immune systems are so vulnerable, teachers wash their students' hands many times during the day. They have supply boxes for each of the children with their names on them. They clean toys, tables and supplies constantly.

"We try to minimize issues like hand holding, but in terms of sharing, we do try to help them understand that concept and taking turns," Nancy Zuch said. "That is a very important preschool concept to learn.

Without this place, most of these children would be isolated.

'Sick Kid's Mom'

Ask the kids about what they like about school and they'll scream that they love being there.

"I like it because we play together," Jessica said.

Madison, another student, said she likes it "because we share."

The Zuchs knew the impact their center would have on children, but they never anticipated the impact it would have on families.

"We don't have the normal experience of leaving the house and going anywhere," one parent said. "We are living in a bubble, so coming here, we're outside of that bubble."

Parents trade notes on treatment and take comfort in each other.

"You feel like you're not the 'sick kid's mom,'" said Madison's mother, Maura Lewinger. "It is nice because there is no difference between any of them."

Happy Place

At the school, Nancy Zuch is the head teacher. Her husband, Rod, works as the head fundraiser. With families facing large medical bills, they don't have to worry about tuition for the school. No child ever pays tuition to attend the center.

The Zuch's daughter, Morgan, now twelve years old, is cancer-free. She volunteers and helps lead classes at the school. She's already decided what she wants to be when she grows up.

"I want to be a teacher at the Morgan Center," Morgan said.