CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. (WIVB) – The pandemic forced many people to be apart for a long time, but that was particularly hard on a group of young women battling cancer.
During the shutdown, members of Kaely’s Kindness Foundation lost of their own, but they couldn’t get together to grieve.
Stella Usiak died in January after a 10-year battle with cancer.
“She should be walking across the graduation stage. North Tonawanda High School prom is tomorrow,” said Stella’s mom, Jen Usiak.
Stella would have turned 18 on June 5.
Thursday, June 10, was the first time the group of young women were together in person since the pandemic. And so, to the tune of Stella’s favorite Taylor Swift song, the girls released balloons in memory of Stella into Thursday’s sunset.
It was a gathering that was extremely meaningful for both the young women who are fighting cancer and Jen Usiak, who feels near and dear to the Foundation.
“If Stella was here today, this would be a place where she would go to talk about her worries or fears,” Jen said.
Jen says it’s bittersweet. She’ll look to stay involved with Kaely’s Kindness Foundation in some capacity to be there for the girls in this group. Kaely’s Kindness Foundation provides social and emotional support for Western New York girls with cancer or those who are treated locally for their cancer.
“It’s almost like supporting Stella when she lost friends of hers. She had to go and grieve, and that loss is always felt, any time a girl passes away,” Jen Usiak said.
Together at last, the girls grieved their loss and celebrated being back together.
Hope Rises got the sponsors to make the event extra special with a DJ, balloons, food, and goodie bags.
For Christine Benedyk, who was diagnosed with cancer at 17 and is still battling the disease at 23, getting together in person meant getting to see her friends.
“You rely on each other so much, and it just means so much to finally get to see everybody, and Stella’s mom because lost her during COVID-19, so we weren’t allowed to visit or anything,” Christine said. “We lost most of our normal friends when we got diagnosed because once you can’t keep up anymore, they kind of just go…they do their own thing. So it’s really comforting to know that other people are going through the same things as you, and they can really relate on that level.”
Kaely Kwitek, co-founder of the organization, is now three years cancer-free herself. She says she knows the importance of this togetherness.
“COVID-19 has kind of taken its toll on us. A lot of these girls are newly diagnosed. They don’t really want to come to things as it is, and then doing it on Zoom, you don’t get to have those sidebar conversations, you don’t to gain that relationship that you would in person,” Kwitek said.
Erica Brecher is an anchor and reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2018. See more of her work here.