Be hopeful, be helpful. That is the guiding philosophy behind Harley Sherwood’s mitzvah project-turned-ambitious organization, which collects dresses for cancer patients.
Since fifth grade, the 16-year-old high school junior has been gathering new and used dresses for patients to wear to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center’s Department of Pediatrics’ annual Spring Prom. Two weeks before the prom, each attendee gets to pick outfits from “Promingdale,” a collection of beautiful dresses and suits donated by Sherwood and others. Then comes the event itself, in which the hospital cafeteria is transformed into a ballroom.
“These children can use a little magic,” said reporter John McKenzie, who covered the event for ABC News in New York. “Many have endured months of painful treatment. They not only feel different, many [also] look different. Many began to socially withdraw.”
Which is exactly why the dresses, perhaps a small gesture at first glance, actually signify something so much more. “This is a night for these patients to be ‘normal.’ Donating a dress is symbol of hope from the outside world,” Sherwood says. “Just for one night, you’re really changing their life, and it makes me want to collect as many dresses as possible, so every single patient there can feel special through whatever dress they feel is perfect for them.”
Sherwood’s special connection to the effort began with a woman she never met: her maternal grandmother, who passed away from breast cancer when her mother was young. For this reason, Sherwood has long felt an interest in helping others with cancer—not to mention that she’s wanted to be a doctor since she was 7.
Sherwood was introduced to the idea of collecting dresses for donation when, at 10, she attended the Bunny Hop at FAO Schwarz, a big annual charity event to benefit the Society for Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Since the center is one of the nation’s leading hospitals for cancer research and treatment, Sherwood knew it would be a great partnership. “Everything [Sloan-Kettering] does is a worthy cause and could potentially impact a lot of people who suffer every day,” she says. “I knew they could make difference in a child’s life and I wanted to help them.”
The first year, she donated from her own closet along with soliciting family and friends, collecting 80 dresses in total. After that, she realized that she wanted to extend the personal endeavor into her mitzvah project and beyond. Over the years, Sherwood has managed to establish programs not only in her school, but also in her friends’ schools, each holding a drive for dresses over a period of two weeks in the spring. Last year, to promote the drive, the community service board members at the Hewitt School (which Sherwood attends) dressed up in prom dresses for the day to encourage other students to ask questions and learn more about the cause. To date, Sherwood has helped to gather over 750 dresses.
“I wanted a [mitzvah] project that I could really care about. And I still care deeply about it—sometime in the far, far future I hope to collect one million dresses,” she says.
Being in it for the long haul is more than just words with her. Presently, she’s working on a business plan to turn her organization into a 501(c)(3) non-profit called Be Hopeful, Be Helpful. And even though Sherwood herself has not yet been able to actually attend the prom—she has to be 18 (a legal adult)—she’s working harder than ever to keep the dresses in the pipeline.
“As soon as I turn 18, I will be there, volunteering, helping [patients] get ready, and everything,” she says. “I can’t wait to be there for that experience… I’ve been looking forward to it.”
“Celiac does not, will not, and will never define who you are as a person,” says 14-year-old Jack Getman. “You are still you, even if you can’t eat bread.”
When Getman, now in eighth grade, began brainstorming mitzvah projects, his rabbi advised him to choose a project personal to him. Getman was inspired to found WiGF (What is Gluten Free), a pamphlet to help newly diagnosed patients make the transition to gluten-free living.
Getman’s personal journey with the disease began four years ago when, after years of misdiagnoses, doctors finally figured out that he had celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that affects the digestive process. When a person with celiac disease consumes gluten—a protein found in grains likes wheat, rye, barley, oats, and malt—the individual’s immune system responds by attacking the small intestine.
Getman uses a clever analogy to explain to his friends what happens when gluten enters the body: “A healthy small intestine is lined with millions of villi. Villi are responsible for sucking in all the nutrients from the food you eat. Imagine the villi are trees. The gluten cuts down most of the trees so that they die and can’t take in the nutrients. But with a gluten-free diet, the trees grow back very quickly.”
“It’s difficult for kids to give up their favorite foods,” adds his mom, Heather Getman.
So for his mizvah project, Getman created educational materials offering basic background on the disease as well as a lot of practical information on how to make gluten-free living feel normal and manageable. While awareness of the disorder has grown exponentially—many supermarkets now have aisles devoted to gluten-free items and restaurants feature gluten-free dishes on their menus—he brings a fresh kid perspective to the discussion. Writing with the maturity of an adult who has had the disease for years, Getman provides tips for patients of all ages, including issues of special concern for his peers, like handling social situations such as birthday parties and sleepovers. The final pages are devoted to a list of his favorite gluten-free restaurants and products, and he continues to update the pamphlet as he makes new diet-related discoveries.
It’s clear that Getman has decided that celiac disease will not over-run his life. He plays the electric bass in the school band, practices photography, plays tennis, and reads a book a week. When he was preparing for his bar mitzvah, it meant a lot to him that he could relate his disease to his Torah portion, Tazria, which has to do with leprosy. “A modern-day connection to my Torah portion involves the fact that much of modern medicine is still a mystery. In those days, no one knew what caused leprosy, and there are many diseases today that people don’t understand, even doctors,” he said in his bar mitzvah speech.
While there’s still much to learn about celiac disease, Getman has distributed over 100 copies of WiGF, through doctors and at personal requests. “Celiac can be isolating, but doesn’t have to be,” he says.