Hillsborough nonprofit opens first school in the U.S. specifically for children with cancer

Melissa Gackstetter and her 5-year-old daughter Laurel have a lot to celebrate. Laurel, who has been battling leukemia for two years, is coming to the end of her treatment.

During that time, she's been able to feel like any other child by attending the 1Voice Academy, the first school in the country for children with cancer. 

Gackstetter said the school was a space "where our kids can run and feel safe."

Luby Myrthil, whose son attends the academy, agrees.

"Being here in a place like this where everyone is the same, everyone is battling it -- gives a sense of peace," Myrthil said.

Mary Ann Mossolio, a former pediatric oncology social worker, is the executive director of the 1Voice Foundation, which joined with Hillsborough County Schools to launch this initiative. 

"What we've created is a concept where it's an educational center," Mossolio explained. "We've partnered with the Rotary Florida Camp because during the week, during school hours, no one is using the camp. Our philosophy with the 1Voice Academy is to accommodate children without making them feel accommodated."

She saw the need for this kind of program after losing her own little boy to childhood cancer. 

"One of the things that I vowed to myself is that I would figure out a way to educate children while they're on treatment. There's a sense of wellness here," she said. "It's not a hospital, it's not a building in the city. People are walking. They're sitting on benches. They're feeling healthy."

Mossolio said the atmosphere makes it more conducive for learning. 

"The classroom that we've created here at the camp has bean bag chairs for example, so if a child is experiencing body pain they just sit in a bean bag chair," she said.

Teachers and tutors work with additional challenges these children may have. Karen Hidalgo, whose son battled Leukemia, is one of the tutors.

"I understand how they may be feeling based on what my son went through. You know sometimes they might forget things because of their treatment or their diagnosis or they may be short-tempered or just not have the will to continue," Hidalgo said. "So you understand that and you know it's not them not wanting to try and persevere but more of what they're going through affects them on so many levels."

There are safety precautions similar to many schools and an area for medical treatment. 

"The Florida Rotary Camp actually has a five-bedroom infirmary and it actually has a helicopter landing area too so that if, God forbid, you need to airlift a child or they need to go by ambulance,  the infirmary is a magnificent facility," Mossolio said.

The school allows siblings of young cancer patients to participate as well.

"We believe the whole family is diagnosed, not just the child. Every family member is affected and we feel this is a huge step in keeping the family whole and keeping the family normal," she explained. "Children on treatment are told all day long, 'No, you can't play football,' 'No, you can't go to the birthday party,' 'You can't go to Girl Scouts.' You should be able to go to school," Mossolio said.

The children are learning while healing along the way. 

"Having a school where we can go and feel safe and our kids can continue to learn -- Laurel can continue to learn without actually putting her education on hold -- is a really huge deal," Gackstetter added. "I think it will be really special for the pediatric cancer community here in Tampa and hopefully will be a model for other areas."

LINK: For more information about the 1 Voice Academy, visit their website.