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BCA: ‘Cooking together’ class at Memorial Hermann Canopy facility helps kids heal

October 3, 2018

When 10-year-old Ashleigh Gramss found out that her mom, Catherine, had breast cancer last year, she said she didn’t want to tell any of her friends about it — she was worried that they would tease her.

But, in a cooking class, of all places, Ashleigh said she felt safe enough to let others know what her family was going through.

Gramss can’t go just anywhere for this type of class, either. Once a month, she visits the Canopy facility at Memorial Hermann - The Woodlands for a cooking class specifically designed for kids whose parents or family members are affected by cancer.

Canopy, which is one of only two cancer survivorship centers in the state, opened two years ago.

The facility offers upwards of 50 programs per month, such as art or yoga classes and group therapy. They also have a massage therapy room and a wig-fitting salon. The facility does not require survivors to have been treated by Memorial Hermann to take part in the services.

While it is billed as a facility to elevate life above cancer for both men and women, Manager Amanda Poole said most of the funding comes from the organization “In the Pink of Health,” which targets female cancers.

The “Cooking Together” class that Ashleigh participates in was one of the facility’s first programs.

Ashleigh said she was nervous the first time she went to the class, but warmed up to it quickly.

“I felt like I had been there forever, because they make it feel like home,” Ashleigh said.

She also hit it off with one of the chefs at the classes, Paola Gianotti, who taught her how to make her favorite recipe so far: focaccia bread.

Thanks to a class recipe book given to her, Ashleigh has duplicated some dishes, like pear bread and risotto, at home with her family who live in The Village of Creekside Park.

Poole said that a child knowing how to cook when a family member has cancer accomplishes many things.

“It can give (the child) a sense of control or help them to take charge of the situation at home. It can give them a sense of purpose, that they can be helpful in a tangible way,” Poole said.

Ashleigh’s mom, Catherine, takes her to the cooking class, but usually leaves to have lunch or coffee with other mothers whose children attend the class.

“(The mothers I’ve met) are now my friends. While the kids catch up, we have time to catch up too,” Catherine said.

Poole said that’s the way it should work.

“Parents are encouraged to either drop their kids off or hang out in another room. We try to create a safe space for the kids, and they won’t share what they need to share if they can see mom or dad or think that they can hear,” Poole said.

At the class, participants also play games like charades or even interact with a therapy dog.

There’s another, deeper level to the class as well, Poole said. A licensed professional counselor is present in order to facilitate conversation as needed.

“(Children in this situation) need a community, they need an outlet. The counselor doesn’t step in all the time, but if she starts to see signs of true depression she’ll step in,” Poole said.

Ashleigh, however, said she tends not to talk about her mom’s illness much at the class.

“Most of the time, I like to just be there. If we’re always talking about it, we wouldn’t have as much fun as we do,” Ashleigh said.

While Catherine is now in recovery, the Gramss family had to journey through the grim realities of breast cancer — such as going through chemotherapy and radiation and the physical changes that happen as a result of that.

When she was first diagnosed, she said many people told her to visit Canopy.

“(The kids) had a really hard time with it and it was really scary, but Canopy is like a family. You walk in and everybody has a story or has been impacted in some way,” Catherine said.

That seems to be due to the quality of volunteers at the facility, who Poole said are equipped with first-hand experience to help those who visit Canopy.

“Most of our volunteers are survivors, minus a handful who’ve had an immediate family member who has battled cancer,” Poole said.

Catherine said that once everything is back to normal, she hopes to volunteer at the center. Ashleigh was quick to say that when she is old enough, she would do the same— maybe she’ll even help teach a cooking class eventually.

jane.stueckemann@chron.com

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