It's been a year and a half since teacher Joan Kirby Hromas met her first students in the PACE Academy, an education program and safety net for pediatric patients at Presbyterian Hospital, and she's already helped some write songs or create books.
The program, created in 2020 and supported by the Presbyterian Healthcare Foundation and the Kathie Winograd Educational Excellence Fund, supports each student as they navigate through treatment. Joan works with kids from age 2 to their 20s, providing individualized tutoring and maintaining a constant lifeline among hospital, family and school to keep disruption to a minimum.
Joan works with 20 students undergoing treatment and follows another 20 out of treatment, as part of a survivorship program. For kids out of treatment, she makes sure they're able to follow their dreams by helping them navigate challenges, such as graduating high school or getting into college.
"I want to be their life coach, their supporter. I don't want them to be left behind," Joan said.
Athena is a 14-year-old fighting multiple challenges. She loves cooking and wants to be a chef or a day care provider when she grows up. Now, she is fighting her way through cancer treatment, while also managing autism and ADHD.
Joan was a little worried when she first met Athena because of the challenges the girl is facing. But beneath a head left hairless due to treatments and the tubes and wires necessary for Athena's survival, Joan found an unstoppable spirit – a spirit that refuses to let anything get in the way of her goals.
As she does with all her students, Joan has dedicated herself to guiding Athena through the obstacles in her path, from debilitating treatment days to piles of school system paperwork.
Joan worked with Athena in creating a recipe book and serving hot chocolate to nurses. They also worked on a project about North Carolina that Athena presented to her doctors. "She has so much drive. She will not give up," Joan said.
Joan wants to make each day as "typical" as possible for her PACE kids. She says one goal is to keep kids from dropping out. She stays in close contact with patients' teachers and tries to make schoolwork as fun as possible. Multiplication tables? How about a game of multiplication bingo? Creative writing? How about writing a song? She helped one student write a rap about his diagnosis of cancer and how it changed the way he looks at life. The young man says he now lives each day to the fullest. "We
wrote it on GarageBand software. He did the lyrics and designed his own beat. It was so much fun."
Joan is a fierce defender of her students, working to ensure they get the accommodations they need when in the classroom. That includes working to create "504 plans" for students. Part of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a 504 plan helps ensure that a child with a disability identified under the law (including medical issues) who is attending an elementary or secondary school receives accommodations that will ensure academic success and access to the learning environment.
Creating an accommodation for a child can be as simple as having someone with a hearing problem sit in the front row of a classroom or letting students use the bathroom whenever needed.
Joan said, "I feel like their protector. I tell them I will do everything I can to be sure they are not being targeted for things that are out of their control. 'I am working for you. I am your advocate.'"