LOVE, NILS is a Singapore-based charity started by ex-pat Lesli Berggren. Their mission is to encourage and empower local pediatric cancer patients and their caregivers through healthcare guidance, plus emotional, social and community support. Below is an interview she gave BT Editor Tori Nelson about her organization and how AWA women can get involved.
How did LOVE, NILS get started?
In 2012, my 12-year-old son Nils was diagnosed with stage IV lymphoma in Singapore. I spent one year with him in the National University Hospital (NUH) and an additional five months in Seattle Children’s Hospital (SCH) for his cancer treatment, from which I gained incredible insight into both Eastern and Western health care. While Singapore is the hub for childhood cancer treatment in all of Southeast Asia, the Seattle hospital excelled with holistic care and emotional support throughout our medical journey.
After Nils passed in 2014, I wanted a way to help other people facing the same struggles we did. It started with a few toy donation events at NUH run by my family, and in 2017, I gathered like-minded individuals to start LOVE, NILS. The name was inspired by my son. When he sent letters thanking his tribe of supporters, he would sign every one with “Love, Nils”.
Our foundation’s mission is to provide pediatric cancer patients and their caregivers much needed healthcare guidance, emotional care, and social and community support that will enable them to thrive.
Can you explain your business model, and how it makes this organization unique?
While Singapore hospitals provide top-of-the-line medical treatment, we fill in the gaps with non-medical support that is not available in hospitals or from other charities.
Our uniqueness is in our vision: to be a beacon of hope and resilience for children with cancer and their families. We facilitate a range of programs for children in the cancer treatment system. Our Calendar of Hope provides free monthly tickets to concerts, plays, and events to children and their caregivers. We also host art therapy sessions, our T-Shirt Project, at-home tutoring, an annual toy donation at NUH, and more. We recently donated $100,000 to the NUH pediatric oncology department to provide their first-ever full-time Patient Navigator for two years, a role that is dedicated to guiding patients through the medical system.
Childhood cancer is family-centric. It affects the child, as well as the parents, siblings, grandparents, their friends, and their community. We are spreading awareness through schools, businesses, and events to raise this awareness and grow our support network.
You’ve gotten a lot of help recently, especially from school children here in Singapore. What do you credit for the organization’s rapid growth?
I believe that for long-term, real change to happen, we have to be reaching our youth. If adolescents begin caring about a cause greater than themselves and get involved with philanthropy early on in life, this will naturally lead to them cultivating care on their own. Students are brilliant when it comes to collaborating with a charity. They have some of the most beneficial ideas. We work with five international and local schools and hope to grow this number in the near future as we expand our programs.
Our rapid growth comes from word-of-mouth, thanks to the passion our cause ignites in our community and from the devotion of my volunteer executive team. They work extremely hard ensuring the success of LOVE, NILS, and they know how to get to “yes” when we have been told “no” before.
This is such an emotionally charged subject that is difficult to discuss, especially for those like you who’ve lost a loved one. How do you find the inner strength to tackle this topic every day?
It was not easy in the beginning, especially having to revisit the very same rooms my son had been treated in before at NUH. This charity keeps me close to Nils by helping others like him, and I know what a child with cancer and their family need. Nils told me he did not want to be forgotten, and I am making sure that never happens.
What advice do you have for parents caring for a child with cancer? And what should friends do and NOT do, to provide the most assistance?
There are so many ways to support a child with cancer or a family member. Every little bit of encouragement and support goes such a long way.
The worst thing is to do nothing– to avoid the topic, to pretend like it doesn’t exist, to assume they want their space, or to think that you couldn’t possibly help. The best is to let them know you are there and willing to help. Communicate what you are prepared to do, such as pick up siblings from school or extracurricular activities, bring meals to the caretaker in the hospital, or offer to sit with the patient. It helps to provide tangible options, because they may not know what to ask of you.
If the child patient has passed away, do not ignore the family. Call, visit, and talk to them about their passed loved one.
As Nike says, just do it.
What are some of the highlights of your experience running LOVE, NILS so far?
I have had hundreds. Passing out new toys to kids and seeing their smiling faces. Watching the calm that comes over a family in our open art sessions. Spreading awareness about our cause. Collaborating and working with amazing volunteers, corporations, schools, and organizations.
Honestly, I cry a lot in disbelief that so many people support and believe in a cause so close to my heart.
The best gift of all is getting hugs and kisses from kids with cancer.
What’s your ultimate goal with LOVE, NILS?
My goal is for all the hospitals treating children with cancer in Singapore to independently fund holistic cancer care practices and programs. If we are able to accomplish this vision, LOVE, NILS will have the bandwidth to expand into other regions in Southeast Asia to provide programs and support for even more children with cancer.
What can AWA members do to help?
Become an ambassador for our cause in your network,to raise awareness and provide further opportunities for funding. Make us your charity of choice for your family, your company, or organization. Raise funds, donate, or volunteer.