Distance learning presents unique challenges for kids at every age. But imagine those challenges compounded by the fact that a child is in the hospital.

That’s exactly what Nikki Pendekanti, founder of the nonprofit A Friend in Me, thought as the 2020 school year approached. Pendekanti and her husband know first-hand the challenges a hospitalized child faces. They lost their son Rupesh in 2007 after a five-year battle with leukemia.

“We started our nonprofit with City of Hope, since that is where our son underwent treatment,” says Pendekanti. “Then we were looking to help other kids and wanted to find other nearby hospitals and were so impressed with MemorialCare Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital Long Beach and what they were doing for kids with cancer.”

Over the last few years, A Friend in Me and their local high school clubs, have hosted monthly social events, such as movie nights, bubble shows and even a high school prom for teens being treated for cancer at the Jonathan Jaques Children’s Cancer Institute at Miller Children’s & Women’s. Knowing how challenging having a child in the hospital can be for the whole family, they also regularly donate snacks and essential supplies, like toiletries, pajamas, and sandals for families.

“When you have a sick child, there are a lot of things you can’t plan for,” says Pendekanti. “You can be at your doctor’s for a checkup and all of the sudden, your child is being admitted to the hospital. We wanted to provide items that support these families when the unexpected happens.”

And in 2020, the most unexpected thing happened – a global pandemic. Starting in March, the social events were put on hold, but the donation of essential supplies continued. With no end in sight, Pendekanti and her volunteers wanted to know what more they could do to support these families during a very isolating time. The new school year was approaching and many of the patients at Miller Children’s & Women’s would have to attend virtual school from their hospital room.

“Many of our patients don’t have their own computer,” says Rita Goshert, director, Cherese Mari Laulhere Child Life Program, Miller Children’s & Women’s. “A Friend in Me stepped in and saved the day.”

A Friend in Me started a Go Fund Me campaign and the word spread. Existing donors, friends and even strangers rallied together and raised enough funds to purchase 12 laptops and iPads, as well as four DVD players. Hospital school teachers at Miller Children’s & Women’s are using these electronic devices to support patients in daily virtual learning sessions with their school.

“Our job is to normalize the hospital experience for children, and a big part of that is making sure they stay on track with their education,” says Goshert. “A Friend in Me made it possible for our students to strengthen their education while being hospitalized.”

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