In the fight against childhood cancer, children are noncombatants.
That is the response of The Alyssa House Board Chair, Lynn Divers, to the more common conception of cancer treatment as a “battle” between the patient and the disease. Lynn’s daughter, Alyssa, died in 2012 because her 10-year-old body was a battleground between osteosarcoma and the tortuous treatments used to combat it.
What got her through the agonizing two-year ordeal of treatment, the deep loss, and continued grief, was the support of her community. The provision of free housing when they had to seek treatment away from that supportive community, allowing their family to stick together, was integral. That is why Lynn, with other committed advocates, started The Alyssa House in 2016 under the fiscal sponsorship of Virginia Organizing. Like Virginia Organizing’s other partner, LilyPads Housing, The Alyssa House offers a free place to stay for families traveling to Charlottesville with an immunocompromised child.
“This work is a way to honor and remember Alyssa, and also a way we pay it forward,” Lynn says. “Families are in crisis when something goes wrong with their child. They need tremendous support. We received that because of community in Charlottesville, and friends of friends who stepped in when we were desperate.”
Lynn’s goal is to do just one thing really well, and not to let her work balloon into something unsustainable. The Alyssa House is community-based and volunteer-driven, and aims to take care of one family at a time through simple hospitality and basic mutual aid. They rely on individual volunteers to help maintain the space, and the house itself is owned by a local congregation, Sojourners United Church of Christ, and rented at a discount.
Right now their biggest immediate need is for a few more board members, particularly social workers or people connected to pediatrics at the UVA hospital. That is a connection they have lacked recently, and has resulted in short periods when the house has been vacant.
On a systemic level, Lynn imagines a future when health care is affordable, well-funded, and effective. “One day, a cancer diagnosis may mean illness but not destruction, treatment but not torture, sickness but not staggering suffering,” she said in a recent social media post. Society should not be blaming individuals – especially children – for bad outcomes because they did not have a positive attitude or pray hard enough. The battle is the collective responsibility of communities and society writ large, and Lynn maintains that we have failed children by making their bodies a battleground. Her work through The Alyssa House is her way of contributing to the community support that families need to survive the fight.