SINGAPORE - When she was two, Nur Zahra Nadiah was not allowed to play with her siblings when they displayed mild flu symptoms.
She had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, which left her with a weakened immune system.
"I was sad because I was sick and couldn't play with them," said Zahra, who kept to herself as a result.
Now six, she exudes far more confidence. Not only is her cancer in remission but, since attending Arc Children's Centre in 2012, she also has a group of five friends, all of whom have cancer or other life-threatening illnesses, to bond with and share secrets.
Zahra is among 110 seriously ill children whom the centre has helped in the three years since it opened. All of them were referred by the National University Hospital and KK Women's and Children's Hospital.
"Medical bills are hefty, and parents have no choice but to go back to work," said Ms Geraldine Lee, 57, Arc's manager and one of five founders.
"But these children often have low immunity, and they can't go to normal day-care centres... Some of the parents choose to send their kids back to the hospital playrooms because they had no other safe place to go."
Arc's founders decided to fill the gap. Their centre has since been taking in children with life-threatening conditions, including leukaemia, brain tumours and bone cancer. Most are between the ages of two and seven, but the centre also accepts those who are well into their teens.
The fees are set at $10 each day, and the centre offers subsidies for those who cannot afford it.
These children, and their siblings, get to learn and play within a highly sanitised indoor environment. The centre, which is fitted with air ionisers and cleaned every morning with hospital-grade disinfectants, provides meals, formal education and enrichment activities such as taekwondo, yoga, and speech and drama.
"Parents are concerned that their child might be unable to catch up when they start primary school, so we offered a few hours of learning to ensure that they do not fall behind their peers," said Ms Lee, adding that there are no exams and tests at the centre.
"The activities have to give these children some sort of a balance, and take their mind off their illness."
Arc has experienced its share of tragedy. Over the three years, eight children have died due to their illnesses, including an eight-year-old boy who succumbed to leukaemia two weeks ago.
"For the older children who knew him, they were devastated," said Ms Lee. "But we have to move on. At least they know that he doesn't have to suffer any more."
She added that the children draw courage from their friends at the centre. "The kids are no longer afraid of going back to the hospitals for treatment, because they have friends who are going through the same thing," Ms Lee said.
Last Sunday, the centre held its annual charity gala lunch at Pan Pacific Hotel to cover its expenditure, which is about $550,000 yearly, and raise funds for bigger premises.
The 204 sq m open-concept centre in Kim Keat Road is running out of space. Currently, 89 children attend Arc, compared to 43 in 2012.
Between 1997 and last year, there have been about 90 new cases of children with cancer each year - with leukaemia being the most common, followed by cancers affecting the brain.
"There will be a growing need for this service," said Ms Lee. "We need a bigger space to accommodate more children and do more activities... These children need the space to express themselves. A bigger place will help them in their recovery."
Sunday's charity event, which was attended by Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, raised $480,000.
Under the National Council of Social Service's Care and Share movement, eligible donations received this year will be matched dollar-for-dollar by the Government.
Zahra's mother, Madam Azirah Zakaria, said the centre has changed their family's life. "Before sending her to Arc, I had to be beside her all the time. But the centre has helped her to become more independent."
After seeing the progress her daughter made after two weeks there, the 31-year-old housewife allowed her three other children aged two, nine and 13 to tag along during their school holidays, and often volunteers her time to care for other children at the centre.
"I thought I was alone in my struggle but there are other parents who have gone through similar experiences," said Madam Azirah. "We are like one big family. Their kids are like my kids. We support each other, especially when their child isn't doing too well."
This article was first published on Nov 9, 2014.
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