Karissa Burgos’ life was forever changed at the tender age of 10.
In 2002, Karissa’s 11-year-old sister Allison was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. While her parents spent most of their time at City of Hope, Karissa spent that entire first month at a friend’s house, and woke up on Christmas morning later that year to find her family still scattered in different places.
|Karissa Burgos, left, and sister Allison (Photo courtesy of Karissa Burgos)|
As time went by she watched her sister’s long beautiful hair disappear and told friends they could not come over to play because of her sister’s fragile immune system. She took on the responsibility of becoming the “big” sister to help care for Allison.
The cancer experience changed Karissa’s life, but it also made her determined to improve the quality of life for others.
Allison’s illness gave Karissa insight into the lives of pediatric cancer patients and their siblings. During the times she visited her sister during treatment at City of Hope, she saw a need among the preteen and teenage patients there.
“My sister was treated during the ages of 11 to 14 and was often presented with gifts from the staff after undergoing arduous procedures and tests. Unfortunately the gifts were often dolls or other preschool age toys,” said Karissa. “Many toy donations are received by the hospital, but not many are gifts that teenagers would appreciate.”
Karissa and her sister decided to change this. In 2008, they founded Gifts for Hope, which has already collected and donated more than 250 age-appropriate gifts for City of Hope’s adolescent patients. Donated gifts include DVDs, clothing, hand-held video games, backpacks, purses, lotion, makeup, arts and crafts kits, an iPod and portable DVD player, among others.
“We’ve expanded our efforts to include siblings of patients as well,” Karissa said. “Having been in that position myself, I know the feeling of spending long hours in waiting rooms with nothing to do.”
Allison, now a sophomore in college, has just celebrated her five-year anniversary of being cancer-free, and hopes to one day work at City of Hope. Her sister, a senior at Upland High School, will join her this fall as a freshman at Azusa Pacific University where she plans to begin studies to become an orthodontist.
In recognition of her ability to take a devastating life experience and turn it into a positive one for herself and others, Karissa recently was awarded one of 15 college scholarships from SuperSibs!, a national nonprofit organization that supports, honors and recognizes siblings of children with cancer.
“We felt that Karissa was deserving of the $1,000 scholarship, serving as a tremendous role model for other siblings who follow in her footsteps,” said Stacy Dempsey, chair of the SuperSibs! Scholarship Committee. “Her positive attitude and eagerness to help others as a result of her experience is truly remarkable.”
Additionally, Karissa has been a member of a Relay for Life team for the last five years, helping to raise more than $28,000 for the American Cancer Society.
“Having had a sister with cancer has caused me to be more driven to achieve my goals and appreciate the gifts I have been given,” said Karissa. “Allison’s courage and strength during her treatment was amazing and inspiring. Although she was considered high risk, and had to go through rigorous extra treatment such as brain radiation, she didn’t let cancer stop her from being involved in the things she loved.
“I am more independent and focused than I would have otherwise been, and it made me appreciate the fragility of life.”
Karissa plans to continue collecting donations for Gifts for Hope indefinitely. “I truly believe that sickness can be lessened if the soul is lifted,” she said.