Dari Goldman barely had both feet out the door of Caviar & Bananas before she was calling her mom.

“I just met the most incredible person,” the junior double major in public health and women’s and gender studies gushed when her mother answered the phone. “She has the most inspiring story!”

Anna Lonon with UPLIFT participants at the South Carolina Aquarium in April (Photo provided by Raegan Loftis)

That person was Anna Lonon, an English professor at the College of Charleston, and her story goes like this: After Lonon lost her husband Mike to head and neck cancer in 2014, she realized what an impact his death was having on her children, especially her 4-year-old, Jack. Hoping to help him cope with the loss of his father, Lonon sent Jack to a summer camp for children who have lost a parent to cancer. He returned a completely different person.

That’s when Lonon decided to start her own program to help children who have a parent who has been diagnosed with cancer. The Lonon Foundation helps Lowcountry children affected by a parent’s cancer diagnosis find comfort, heal and grow — and gives them an outlet for some fun during a stressful time.

“Just hearing how genuine she was and how she was able to take her experience and turn it all around to give something so needed to children was just amazing,” says senior anthropology major Alyssa Gallo, who also met Lonon at Caviar & Bananas with Goldman and junior McKenzie Wofford. “It started as a community-service requirement for [English professor] Kathy Beres-Rogers, but all it took was hearing Anna’s story, and we were all in – we were all totally invested.”

That investment has resulted in UPLIFT (Using Play, Love, Inspiration and Friendship as Therapy), The Lonon Foundation’s student-led, CofC-sponsored free monthly program for children ages 6 to 17 who have been affected by a parent or caregiver’s cancer.

“Alyssa, Dari and McKenzie were just so enthusiastic and excited, and they all wanted to commit to the cause – so they stuck with me and built the program from the ground up,” says Lonon. “They bring an energy and compassion to this organization that is contagious.”

Now with more than 60 student volunteers, UPLIFT is run almost entirely by College of Charleston students. Involved in everything from the fundraising campaigns to the event planning, the volunteers are trained by Darkness to Light, local palliative care social workers as well as CofC grad students in the Master of Science in Child Life Program.

“I’m just in awe that so many people want to give their time,” says Lonon, adding that the goal is to expand UPLIFT as a student-led, student-managed organization that can offer other resources, including a summer camp. “That’s the three-year plan.”

But right now, the student volunteers are looking forward to this Sunday’s UPLIFT event: Yoga in the Park at Hampton Park, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. on June 4.

Between the first UPLIFT outing in March and the second in April, participation more than doubled (Photo provided by Raegan Loftis)

It is the third outing that UPLIFT has organized since it was started in March. Past events included a scavenger hunt at the South Carolina Aquarium and a day making art at FABULON Art Studio.

“The idea is just to get these kids out, away from the stress their family is experiencing, engaging in healthy activities that allow them to express themselves and just having fun with a community of people dedicated to helping them grow and heal. It shows them they are not alone,” says Gallo, now UPLIFT’s director of communication and marketing. “The community as a whole has been so receptive to the cause. This organization is so incredible, so special. So many people want to get involved.”

Part of this, of course, has to do with the pervasiveness of cancer.

“It is shocking how many lives cancer affects, how many people have had someone close to them diagnosed with cancer,” says Goldman, adding that many of the student volunteers have lost a parent to cancer themselves. “They say, ‘I wish I had this kind of thing when I was a kid.’”

“That’s the ultimate reward,” says Lonon. “They’re going back to their own memories and giving their time to make it better for these children. It comes full circle.”

It all comes full circle for The Lonon Foundation, too, at the annual Hike for Mike, a family-friendly fundraising event held in honor of Mike Lonon and his love for exploring nature with his children. With proceeds supporting the UPLIFT program, this year’s Hike for Mike will on Oct. 7 at the Caw Caw Interpretive Center in Ravenel, South Carolina.

“All of this good that The Lonon Foundation is doing – that we’re doing through these UPLIFT events: It all comes out of the Lonon family’s own loss and pain, and that makes it even more special,” says Goldman. “It’s very, well, uplifting.”

Featured photo by Raegan Loftis