Cancer treatment, especially for childhood cancer, has vastly improved. And now, thanks to Daniel Project, children in Cost Rica are beginning to have access to the treatment benefits we have here.
According to American Cancer Society estimates, in 2018 alone there were around "1,735,350 new cancer cases diagnosed and 609,640 cancer deaths in the United States."
In addition, childhood cancer rates "have been rising slightly for the past few decades," with approximately 10,590 children diagnosed with cancer in 2018. But the good news is that, owing to major advances in treatment, "more than 80% of children with cancer now survive 5 years or more."
Still, cancer treatment, especially chemotherapy, is a mighty tough row to hoe for both these children and their parents. And not every country has something like Ronald McDonald House to provide special accommodations for the cancer-afflicted children and their parents and to ease just a little the anxiety and pain and bolster hope.
But in Costa Rica, an important trading partner and a country with which we maintain close diplomatic relations, Daniel Project (Proyecto Daniel) has stepped up in the last few years to fill that need for young cancer patients.
It's an incredible story that inspires hope with the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.
Daniel Project owes its name to the person who inspired the program with his desire to serve others and his indomitable spirit – Daniel Arce.
When he was just 15 years old, Daniel was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer. It was a diagnosis that caught the family completely off guard. Daniel and his family fought hard for several years until he finally succumbed to the disease.
Daniel may have lost the battle to cancer, but he came out a winner nevertheless.
In its eighth year now, Daniel Project is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping young people 13 to 25 years old overcome cancer in better facilities.
"The corporation pays occasional visits to cancer patients, makes presentations, and raises funds for the improvement of the hospitals' infrastructure, encouraging these people to battle cancer with a good mentality" (The Costa Rica News).
That description is true as far as it goes, but it's more than a little impersonal. It doesn't capture the true spirit of the Daniel Project or indicate the profound impact it has had – and continues to have – on certain young people's lives.
Daniel's mother Ligia is president of the organization and came much closer when she said, "The situation for teen cancer patients was terrible . . . The project has contributed to healthcare centers with orthopedic beds and the rebuilding of some healthcare institutions.
"I feel Daniel's fighting spirit present in this project. He has been the inspiration of this association. The initiative was born when my son passed . . . but his dream came true on that date as well" (The Costa Rica News).
Really, though, the seeds for Daniel Project were planted almost 50 years ago in upstate New York.
That's when an already large family of nine children agreed to host a foreign exchange student from Costa Rica. Bernardo Gutierez came to the US, lived with the Kujawski family, and became Bruce Kujawski's foreign exchange brother and best friend.
After his time as a foreign exchange student, Bernardo returned to the US for four years and graduated from West Point. After returning to Costa Rica, he was eventually appointed Minister of Transportation and had three children along the way, all of whom attended college in the US. Daniel was the youngest of the three and like a nephew to Bruce.
So it was inevitable really that Bruce would be involved in Daniel Project when it came to be.
Daniel was a lot more than just a bright young man who had a terrible disease, whose life was cut short before he realized his full potential. For he accomplished more during and after his short life than must of us can even imagine.
Daniel – Briefly But Brightly Burning
It's an old analogy, but it still helps illuminate certain lives. A candle is consumed in giving light, is used up in helping us see where we're going or to find what is important – just like a life fully and freely given in service to others. Daniel's life was a lot like that.
Think of the Paschal candle at Easter Vigil. One large brightly burning candle provides the flame and light for all the others. Those nearest the aisle down which the candle is carried light their smaller candles from that single brighter one. And then each person passes the flame to his or her neighbor till all the candles are aglow and the dark building is filled with light.
It is light and life – a sign of a better and brighter world coming.
And so it was with Daniel, youngest child of Bernardo and Ligia . . .
Although diagnosed with osteosarcoma at the age of 15, Daniel graduated from high school with his class in 2006. Then in the fall of 2007, Daniel began his college career at Ramapo College in New Jersey. He took classes and fought the disease for another year.
Not only was Daniel an excellent student, but he was also an accomplished pianist, guitarist, and vocalist. In fact, he was preparing for a performance at Radio City Music Hall when the disease took him.
Unlike most students, Daniel considered attending school, especially college, a privilege. Because of surgeries and chemotherapy treatments, he was often confined to a hospital bed and was forced to miss classes. Still, at Ramapo College, he maintained a 4.00 GPA and gave of himself when he was able to, making the most of his college experience.
Sadly, Daniel passed away one month before his graduation. But he made the most of his time at Ramapo. While undergoing treatment along with eight major surgeries, Daniel tutored more than 30 kids – many of whom later said they would have flunked out without his help and encouragement.
To honor Daniel, a scholarship was set up at Ramapo College, the Daniel Arce Scholarship.
This scholarship is awarded to the student who best exemplifies Daniel's spirit in helping others, especially peers.
Candidates for the scholarship must be finance majors with a strong interest in music or sports. They also must be students who "keep a positive attitude, despite difficult situations" – like Daniel who faced his illness head-on with courage, a positive attitude, and a determination to help others as long as he was allowed.
Daniel Project Grows
Daniel Project grew out of Daniel's expressed desire to provide better conditions for other young people facing what he did - cancer at a young age the ravages of cancer treatments.
On a visit to Costa Rica, Bruce Kujawski and his wife were visiting with Daniel. He said that he was determined to beat the disease and that he then wanted to find a way to provide well-equipped rooms like those in the US (which were then lacking in Costa Rican hospitals) for children and young people being treated for cancer.
Daniel Project grew out of this desire expressed in this conversation. And that's also why Bruce has been involved from the beginning.
Daniel's mother, Ligia, has been heavily involved with the program since its inception. Early on she was able to convince a state-run hospital to give up two rooms for young cancer patients receiving treatment.
Today, there are two such rooms – extensively remodeled and the nicest rooms in the hospital – in three different hospitals in the capital city of San Jose. The remodeled, amenity-equipped rooms are specifically reserved for 13-21-year-olds battling cancer. And now plans are in the works to add or dedicate chemo wings in these hospitals for these young patients.
But Daniel Project aspires to accomplish even more. "We are still working," according to Ligia, "to build a hospital for cancer patients" (The Costa Rica News).
"Bandana Claus" and the Christmas Party
Now, this is where Bruce Kujawski fits into the picture . . .
Bruce is a 65-year-old native of upstate New York who makes his living as a general contractor in the Rochester area. He is the eldest son from a family of nine siblings and is a self-described "country boy who grows his own vegetables."
He proudly declares that being allowed to participate in Daniel Project – getting to see teenagers helping other teenagers in volunteer programs – is "food for my soul."
Speaking of food, Bruce is also known as "the pie guy." His grandfather was the baker in the family and so was the one who made all the holiday pies. Bruce inherited that talent, and now he makes the holiday pies for family and friends.
Bruce has stayed in close contact with his "brother from another mother," Bernardo, Daniel's father. He has always been "Uncle Bruce" to Daniel and Bernardo's other children, and his mother is known as "Grandma K." Bruce is also Santa Claus . . . or, more accurately, "Bandana Claus."
Because Daniel Project is based on service and giving, a hugely important component is the annual Christmas party.
Every year for the past five years, Bruce has dressed up as Santa Clause and given out colorful bandanas to the young cancer patients in the hospitals. He also visits in their rooms those too sick to attend the party. He visits and encourages, hands out bandanas for head coverings, and poses for photos, even with doctors and nurses. In 2017, he also helped distribute 10,000 pieces of peppermint candy to everyone – patients, medical staff, and security guards.
After Bruce first got involved in this way, his family began pitching in, helping raise and contributing funds for gifts and travel. After deciding to eliminate individual gift-giving at Christmas, his family elected to give to a charity, and Daniel Project was their choice. Various companies also donate gifts for this cause, and now well known Costa Rican musicians and comedians donate their time as well.
But the bandanas have always been Bruce's special contribution – hence Bandana Claus.
Every year, he purchases and then hands out at the Christmas parties and at in-room visits, $200 to $300 worth of specially selected bandanas to these young cancer patients, who use them primarily as head coverings. And as a sign of solidarity and support, many doctors and nurses wear bandanas as well.
Bruce's Bandana Source
As you're probably aware, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy treatments usually lose their hair.
The chemotherapy drugs specifically target and suppress rapidly dividing cells like cancer cells. But the problem is that these drugs also attack other cells that divide rapidly, such as hair follicle cells, because the drugs indiscriminately affect both normal cells and cancer cells. As a result, many people receiving chemo lose most or all of the hair on their heads (a condition known as alopecia). And for young people that can be both disturbing and traumatic.
To cope with this condition, many patients resort to wearing a hat or head covering of some sort. The younger patients often prefer something like a bandana for their head covering. And Bandana Claus accommodates them.
When asked where he purchases the bandanas, Bruce didn't hesitate to say, "Wholesale For Everyone, of course." And he was quick to add that he is particularly pleased with Wholesale For Everyone's fast delivery and now gets all his bandanas there. It took Bruce a while, though, before he hooked up with this bandana supplier.
In the beginning, Bruce's sisters helped him by purchasing bandanas from various local stores. But the sizes varied too much and the colors were too drab.
So Bruce started looking around online for a supplier from whom he could buy bandanas in volume and in loud colors and eye-catching patterns that would appeal to the teenagers. At length, he stumbled on Wholesale For Everyone and was impressed with the "extraordinary variety and the discount offered on large quantities."
One of the main reasons is that they carry the loud colors and designs that really appeal to the young cancer patients, such as the tie-dyes and the star patterns. The other reason is the superior service.
For example, a recent order was shorted because the manufacturer didn't have enough product to fill the order. So Dan Weaver, owner of Wholesale For Everyone, called around to his competitors to find what Bruce needed. The competitors didn't have them either, so Dan made up the difference with some of his religious bandanas, which were a huge hit.
And then there are the bandanas in "Daniel orange" and the Naranja family. But more on that in a minute . . .
Successes and Triumphs
If you ask what keeps Bruce Kujawski doing this every year, spending a great deal of time and his own money, he won't hesitate to say, "These kids have done more to inspire me and to keep me going than anything."
For example . . .
This young man had always dreamed of being a professional soccer player in Costa Rica. But he had also been, much of the time, a difficult child and hard for his mother to handle.
When he was diagnosed with cancer, though, he was able to recognize the goodness in his mother and that she was simply trying to set him on the right path. Elmer began to reform and still held tight his dream of playing soccer.
But then he had to have a leg amputated. Elmer didn't give up, though.
After being fitted with a prosthetic leg, Elmer went after his dream. Eventually, he made the Costa Rican Paralympic soccer team and represented his country in the Paralympic Games. He also became a motivational speaker at high schools . . . until the disease took him last year.
Another young man in the Daniel Project program, Ronnie passed away three years ago, after the doctors had given him two months to live, on the night of the Christmas party. But he had said earlier that he wasn't going anywhere till the party was over – and he kept that promise.
After the Christmas party and after Bandana Claus had given out the gift bandanas, Bruce went to visit Ronnie in his room. Bruce had a picture taken with him, sat with him, and held his hand till he died. Bruce maintains that he could feel Ronnie's strength of spirit as he held his hand.
Bruce first met Fiorella before he started the tradition of wearing the Santa costume. At that time, Fiorella was a little girl who had been reduced to nothing more than skin and bones by the disease.
Her immune system was severely depressed, and Bruce had to wear the required sterile suit in order to visit her and give her a Christmas present. But Fiorella improved and was able to attend the Christmas party the next year. She continued to improve and got well enough to serve as a program volunteer for the next five years.
Today – The Naranja Family
Cancer treatment and accommodations and amenities for young cancer patients in Costa Rican hospitals have come a long way in the past eight years, thanks in large part to Daniel Project. Daniel's influence just keeps spreading and becoming more and more profound.
A certain hue of orange became the emblematic color for Daniel Project and was dubbed "Daniel orange." Today, in honor of Daniel, Daniel Project, and all the brave young people battling cancer, elementary schools all across the country celebrate a "Day of Orange." On this day, the elementary students wear an orange T-shirt to school.
The people who have spearheaded the Day of Orange effort are known at the "Naranja Family." For Naranja is the Spanish word for orange. Daniel's mother, Ligia, heads up the Narnaja Family, and the kids often ask about Daniel and his mom because they are eager to learn more about the whole phenomenon.
"Pura Vida" – The Costa Rican Way
Pura Vida is a peculiarly Costa Rican phrase and way of being. It means, literally, pure life or good life or even simple life, but signifies so much more.
Pura Vida can also be used to mean full of life, this is a real living, this is the life, or awesome and is often used as a greeting or a way to say goodbye.
"Costa Ricans (Ticos) use this term to say hello, to say goodbye, to say everything’s great, to say everything’s cool. However, it is not the words that reflect the true meaning of ¡Pura Vida! Pura Vida is the way Ticos live.
"Not surprisingly, Costa Rica has been named one of the happiest countries in the world, mostly because its inhabitants don’t stress about things the way most foreigners do. Ticos have a very relaxed, simple way of looking at life. No worries, no fuss, no stress—Pura Vida to them means being thankful for what they have and not dwelling on the negative" (Costa Rican Vacations).
Being thankful for what you have and not dwelling on the negative – that pretty well sums up Danial Arce Bobadillo and Daniel Project. With, of course, the added ingredient of always striving to make things better. And Bruce Kujawski himself made this last point.
Forty-eight years ago, a young student from Costa Rica, Bernardo, came to live with a large family in upstate New York. That young man became a brother to the family's eldest son, Bruce. When, years later, Bernardo's son died after succumbing to cancer, Daniel Project was born, and Bruce Kujawaski became Bandana Claus.
Many young lives have been profoundly impacted for the better, and their suffering alleviated some.
That's what happens when you dare to get involved.
If you'd like to donate to, or really help in any way, Daniel Project, you can find the Facebook page here.