Updated Oct. 18
Inspired by her own son’s fight against Wilms tumor, a rare form of kidney cancer, Jeanne DeSanto recently launched Vineyard Havens, an organization that hosts families of child cancer patients in houses on Martha’s Vineyard for vacations of up to a week.
Time away from the hospital and treatment cycle is “beautifully transformative,” program director Caitlin Burbidge told The Times. Changes in the parents, siblings, and patient’s demeanor between fetching them from the ferry and waving goodbye is “clear,” she said.
The trip is all-inclusive: ferry tickets, a home-cleaning service, a professional photoshoot with photographer Randi Baird, and a $700 stipend for the week are just a few of the elements
The organization is partnered with the Jimmy Fund Clinic at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, which recommends families for the program based on their child’s treatment schedule.
Johnny Morris, 4, was one of their first visitors. Johnny has been in and out of treatment for stage 4 high-risk neuroblastoma since he was 7 months old. His father, John Morris, told The Times that in his son’s short life, he has had to endure “40-plus rounds of chemo, 40 rounds of radiation, stem cell transplants, MIBG treatments, and well over 170 rounds of anesthesia.”
Morris and his family used to vacation on the Vineyard every summer until Johnny was first hospitalized in 2015. Johnny’s tumultuous treatment schedule has taken a toll on his parents and 8-year-old sister Madison. They were overdue for a vacation.
“Our stay on the Vineyard was nothing short of spectacular. We went to our favorite spot each day out on South Beach. We visited longtime friends that have homes there. We went to the Flying Horses, and ate dinner in O.B. at Nancy’s and the Chowder Co. The kids enjoyed ice cream at night. It could not have been any nicer,” said Morris.
He added that having all the logistics figured out for them was incredible, and the $700 stipend allowed them to purchase groceries, fuel, and a beach sticker to make the most of the week.
The Morris family stayed in a home owned by DeSanto, overlooking Makonikey Head. John described it as “absolutely beautiful, with breathtaking grounds.” The house is light and airy, and contains four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a modern kitchen, and a spacious living area decked out with board games, a TV, and a special curated gift basket upon arrival. Outside are a front and back yard with a hammock, playhouse, and a wide patio. Enclosed by the woods, the property allows the occupants a place to play and rest in privacy.
Vineyard Havens is currently looking for more donors to open up their homes for one-week windows to these families during the summer season. If you don’t have the ability to give your whole house, the organization is also seeking donations of in-kind services from any Island businesses willing to give.
Leslie Pearlson, owner of Tea Lane Associates, was the organization’s first home donor. Pearlson recently lost her friend and former colleague Jennifer Gardner to brain cancer, and Pearlson’s own mother has battled Burkitt lymphoma: “I am lucky enough to have a sweet home, and the idea of people enjoying it, relaxing in it, and leaving it to go on whatever adventures or outings they choose, with the comfort of returning to a warm, welcoming cocoon.”
The founders said Island residents have been supportive of the new organization. Local bakers, artisans, doctors, and others have all donated their services to support visiting families. Looking ahead to five years in the future, Burbidge and DeSanto hope to have at least 100 properties available for families.
“I want visitors to have a variety of options — quirky cottages, beachfront properties, downtown places — so they can match their personality to the house,” said Burbidge.
In the meantime, the program is already leaving a lasting impact on its participants. “This was the trip of a lifetime for us,” said Morris. “We would 100 percent recommend this to any and all pediatric cancer patients. We had the best time on this vacation, and will be forever grateful for the opportunity to take part in it.”
For more information, visit vineyardhavens.org.
Updated to correct Jeanne DeSanto’s name, the owner of home Morris family stayed in, and DeSanto’s son’s cancer type. — Ed.