A team of volunteers from Bauder Elementary School and Seminole Home Depot built a backyard play set as a surprise for 10-year-old Joshua Steijger, a Bauder student who is battling cancer.
Photo by TIFFANY RAZZANO
Joshua Steijger, 10, right, plays on the swingset with his 4-year-old brother, Jordan. The swinging motion calms Joshua when he isn’t feeling well.
SEMINOLE – Third-grader Joshua Steijger has always loved playing on the swings. Trips to Largo’s Central Park playground rank high among the 10-year-old’s favorite pastimes. Some days it even rivals his love of wrestling and WWE star John Cena.
But the trips to the park have stopped since Joshua began chemotherapy in December. In November, doctors discovered a tumor on an optical nerve. They began treatment within weeks, before the holidays were even over, in hopes of shrinking the mass and saving his vision.
Though the rocking sensation of the swings soothes him when he isn’t feeling well, the drive to the park, and crowds of children can be overwhelming for him, said his grandmother and legal guardian Maria Vanderham.
So last month a team of volunteers from Bauder Elementary School, where Joshua goes to school, reached out to local businesses for donations to build him his own backyard play set with swings, monkey bars, a slide and a sandbox.
“It’s hard when he’s on the playground and doesn’t feel well,” Vanderham said. “But the swinging calms him. Now he can go right out the back door. If it’s hot out when he’s playing and he feels sick, he can just run inside.”
Bauder principal Lisa Bultmann, Tammy Capitani, office clerk, and Cheron Panakhyo, Joshua’s teacher, organized the project. Capitani served as the community liaison for the project and reached out to area businesses for assistance.
Seminole Home Depot donated most of the building materials; West Coast Fence Corporation and PlayNation of Tampa provided additional swing parts. Home Depot also sent over a team of volunteers to help build the playset, and lunch was donated by Mike’s Pizza of Largo.
The swingset was a complete surprise for Joshua, who arrived home just as finishing touches were being made to the structure.
“His reaction was priceless,” Capitani said. “The glowing smile, large eyes … and the outburst of such joy when he asked, ‘Is that for me?’ Joshua was in such awe … What joy to be able to help make the life of a child with such unfortunate circumstances more enjoyable.”
Life hasn’t been easy for Joshua or his siblings, said Vanderham. Their parents aren’t in the picture. So in addition to caring for Joshua since November, she has also adopted his younger brother, Jordan Steijger, 4. Their sisters, 9-year-old twins, live with their maternal grandmother.
But Joshua’s had it the worst, Vanderham said. “The child has been through heck ever since he was born.”
He’s hopped from home to home for years – between Vanderham’s house, his parents’ and foster care, where he was sometimes mistreated because of his developmental disabilities.
He also has neurofibromatosis type I, a lifelong tumor disorder caused by a genetic mutation. It causes tumors to grow throughout the body, she said, and also can result in learning disabilities and vision disorders. The tumors are only worrisome if they affect the nervous system, she said, like this most recent mass growing on an optical nerve.
Joshua has already lost sight in his right eye. She’s hoping the chemo will be able to save his vision in his left one. An MRI after the first round of treatments – he has a year-and-a-half of chemotherapy sessions ahead of him – shows the tumor has shrunk a bit, she said.
She’s grateful to Bauder for all of its support throughout his treatment.
“The school has done a lot for him,” she said, “or for us, I should say.”
Vanderham also plans to sign Joshua up for the Children’s Dream Fund.
“It might be nice to take him to Disney,” she said. “We went to the zoo recently and they had rides there, and that was all he wanted to do.”
She added, “I just want to do something nice for him. I feel awful. These children haven’t had anything. Nothing. No company. No parents. Nothing. It’s awful.”