On April 16, 2017 the lives of Gia and Sabrina LoRusso changed forever. It was on this date that their sister Olivia (then only 12 years old) passed away due to cancer.
Although Olivia fought a hard battle since she was first diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) at the age of 11, and even though she underwent chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant with her twin sister Sabrina as her donor, it was sadly Olivia’s time.
After her passing, the LoRusso family started the Olivia Hope Foundation in her honor, as Olivia’s dying wish was for everyone to fight for a better world for kids with cancer so that others wouldn’t have to experience what she had gone through.
And while the family and countless celebrities across the United States have helped to spread the Olivia Hope Foundation message and garner donations, Olivia’s sisters wanted to start a separate program under the foundation to help other siblings of kids who are going through cancer and other treatments as well. “Liv’s Sibs” with Gia and Sabrina aims to provide comfort to the siblings of childhood cancer patients. Both young girls know that a sibling’s bond is unbreakable, however, childhood cancer can place stress on this bond, and siblings of those with cancer may feel alone or overwhelm. It’s with their program that they hope they can be there for other siblings who have been recently diagnosed with cancer, are currently in treatment, out of treatment or who have passed away.
To tell us more about this incredible program, we spoke with Gia and Sabrina…
Tell us firstly about the Olivia Hope Foundation and why it’s so important to you both?
Gia: My family started the Olivia Hope Foundation when my sister, Olivia, lost her life to Acute Myeloid Leukemia at just 12 years old. The foundation helps kids and their families currently battling cancer, funds research for better treatments and helps to raise awareness about childhood cancer. It’s important to me because it is honoring Olivia’s dream of living in a cancer-free world.
Sabrina: Olivia was my twin sister. It’s only right that we live out her dream of helping other kids like her. I don’t think many people know the full impact that childhood cancer has on kids and their families, so I think it’s important to educate everyone on this important issue.
Under the OHF umbrella you two have started Liv’s Sibs…. tell us about this program?
Gia: Sabrina and I wanted to support the siblings of childhood cancer patients. We started Liv’s Sibs as a way to make the siblings feel special and to be there as a friend for them while they’re going through such a tough time.
Sabrina: Growing up as three sisters we always had a tight bond. Liv’s Sibs honors the bond we shared with Olivia by allowing us to connect with others who are going through the same thing Gia and I did.
Why is it so important that the “forgotten children” of childhood cancer patients be taken care of too?
Sabrina: When Olivia was diagnosed our entire family life was turned upside down. My sister was deathly ill, my parents were focused on her treatment, and I had no idea who to talk to. I didn’t want to burden my parents with anything else, and I didn’t want it to seem like I was being selfish. It’s a difficult situation to be in, especially at a young age.
Gia: Cancer destroys the entire family. The top priority is obviously trying to get the patient the best treatment possible. The “forgotten children” are left to figure out how to be strong for their sick siblings, how to not bother their parents and how to deal with the potential loss of one of the most important people in their life. This is not a normal thing for any child to go through. The siblings need help too.
Was anything like this around when you two were going through this with your own sister? Or how did you deal with things?
Gia: I am not aware of any programs that existed at the time when Olivia was diagnosed and being treated. There were services at the hospitals through the social workers but I don’t remember anything specifically focusing on siblings. Sabrina and I leaned on each other to try to cope with what was going on.
Sabrina: We had social workers at the hospital that helped out families, but it was hard to open up to people when they hadn’t experienced having a sibling with cancer. Unfortunately, no one truly knows how it feels unless they’ve been through it themselves.
What does Liv’s Sibs exactly do for people?
Gia: We look at every situation on a case by case basis to figure out what would be the best way to help a sibling. Parents and social workers fill out applications for Liv’s Sibs on our website, and sometimes we reach out proactively. Usually, Sabrina and I will have a FaceTime call with the sibling to learn more about what’s going on. Then we basically act like a friend, so we’ll send care packages and text or FaceTime on an ongoing basis. We talk about how they’re feeling and offer advice or talk about our experience. Sometimes we just talk about normal kid stuff too.
Sabrina: We act as a support system for the siblings. We make ourselves available for siblings to call or text us whenever they need anything or just want to talk. We also send them gifts to make them feel special.
Recently, what stuff have you done for people across the United States?
Gia: We recently visited a children’s hospital and hosted a Taco night and played games with siblings and a few kids that had cancer. We just hung out for the night. It was fun!
Sabrina: We just sent a bunch of LEGO’s to two siblings of a cancer patient. We found out they love LEGO’s and we thought it would be a great gift because they were able to build the sets together with their sick sister in the hospital.
What is on the horizon for Liv’s Sibs this year?
Sabrina: We want to expand the program and help more siblings this year. We are doing more outreach and really spreading the word about the program.
Gia: We plan to do more visits to children’s hospitals around the country to connect with more siblings. We really enjoy hosting events for siblings because they often make friends with each other at the events too.
How do you want people to always remember your sister Olivia?
Gia: I want people to know how special she was and how she was always willing to put others before herself.
Sabrina: Olivia always thought about how other people were doing. Before she was sick, she was always the one to help my mom pack our lunches. When she got sick, she was still so nice to others. Even on her worst days, she would thank her nurses and doctors and ask us how we were doing. She was incredible.
What would you say to other children reading this right now that may need some happiness or comfort in their lives?
Gia: I would tell them that they are not alone in your family’s journey and don’t feel hesitant to talk about your feelings because they matter too.
Sabrina: I would want everyone to know that we are here to help. Having a sibling with cancer is an extremely difficult time and while we can’t make their sibling better, we can offer our perspective and lend a helping hand.
How can people sign up for your program and/or how can people donate to Liv’s Sibs and the OHF?
We have a ton of information on our website. People can find the application there. For more information, visit oliviahope.org