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This 7-year-old goes online to ‘spread my hope’ to children with medical issues during pandemic

Molly Marks, 7, conducts an online chat as a volunteer for Integrative Touch for Kids. (Amanda Marks) (Amanda Marks)
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Sarah Rose Braithwaite looks straight into her computer’s camera, waiting for a new friend. The color of her cheeks matches her name, and she wears her long hair in pigtails that her mother gently caresses from behind. Her voice is tiny, but her expressions broadcast everything she is feeling.

Sarah Rose has spent most of her 13 years fighting back from terrible things. First, it was a brain tumor when she was 5, with persistent complications she continues to battle. Then, a few months ago, Sarah Rose fell off a horse and fractured her right hip. She walked around for six weeks with that broken bone before doctors took X-rays. She still feels flashes of pain. It crashes in like thunder. She closes her eyes, tosses her head back, and her sweet smile twists into a pained grimace.

Just in time, 7-year-old Molly Marks, sitting on her full-size bed with a canopy decorated with yellow and purple daisies, pops up on the screen and smiles.

“I made something for you,” Molly says, revealing the artwork she created with her new friend’s first name spelled out in a rainbow of colors. Molly even drew red roses.

Sarah Rose squeals.

“Thank you,” she says shyly.

Molly just finished second grade, and she is spending her summer as the youngest volunteer with Integrative Touch for Kids, a nonprofit group based in Tucson that aims to support families with children who have significant health and medical needs.

In a world without a global pandemic, the group’s army of volunteers would visit children and their caregivers at hospitals and other facilities and host the largest pediatric integrative-medicine retreats in the country. There would be hands-on healing therapy, the gentle touch of massages or just a visit to make a child’s day. But then the novel coronavirus made it impossible for handshakes, let alone acupressure, and stay-at-home orders left many feeling secluded.

Early in the crisis, the organization switched to deploying its volunteers to Zoom as “TeleFriends.” Its goal is to spread across the country so that no child feels isolated.

Molly, who missed her friends when her elementary school closed and made a video about it, passes the time by painting her feelings. Bright colors mean she is feeling excited or happy. Dark colors show up when she is sad or angry. For her most recent drawing, Molly needed yellow, pink, black, purple, orange, green and silver.

“Because I have so many feelings in my heart right now,” she says.

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Molly, whose grandfather is a longtime donor and volunteer for ITK, once needed outpatient care, and from her own experience decided she had to step up for children who had more-severe medical issues. She presented Shay Beider, executive director of ITK, a check for $500 from her family. Still, she wanted to give even more.

“I want to help kids in need in ITK, and I want to make them feel better,” Molly says, pausing to find the right words, “and spread my hope.”

On this Zoom call, Molly’s mission is to help Sarah Rose feel better. With a little help from program director Katie Frazee, the two girls get down to the important business of talking about their favorite colors.

At first glance, it may seem as though Sarah Rose and Molly have little to bond over — Sarah Rose is a teenager who is still learning to connect socially with her peers but who knows the lyrics to Post Malone’s more PG-rated songs, and Molly is an almost-third-grader who prefers Taylor Swift. Still, they soon realize how much they have in common.

They both like the color red. Sarah Rose has a toy poodle named Mushu. Molly’s half-Schnauzer, half- poodle goes by LoDo. Then, Sarah Rose shares a secret: When she is sad or scared, she cuddles with her stuffed animal.

“What’s your bear’s name?” Molly asks.

“Care Bear,” Sarah Rose responds.

Suddenly, into the frame springs Molly’s special friend — a unicorn she named Magic.

“I have something when I’m scared, too,” Molly says, hugging Magic. “It’s my favorite stuffed animal.”

At times during their visit, the computer screen freezes, creating an occasional awkward silence. Yet the girls talk for about an hour, getting past the computer glitches and the sneak attacks of Sarah Rose’s pain. When the aches shoot back up, she reaches for Care Bear and uses his furry ears to wipe her tears. Molly, her arms spreading wide, offers an air hug.

“Are you going to get on a horse again?” Molly wonders.

“I’m kind of afraid now,” Sarah Rose replies.

The call is coming to an end, but the girls have one more thing to share. Sarah Rose asks whether Molly knows mindful five-finger breathing, to which Molly nods enthusiastically. Together, they go silent and spread their left hands wide, tracing around each finger while inhaling then exhaling. After the deep breaths, Frazee asks how the girls are feeling.

Sitting tall in her chair, Sarah Rose doesn’t hesitate to speak first.

“Wonderful and happy,” she says.

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