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June 10, 2009 > Operation Connect helps kids stay in touch

Operation Connect helps kids stay in touch

By Miriam G. Mazliach
Photos By Miriam G. Mazliach

Ashley Nixon's smile lights up the living room that this morning contains several visitors from Fremont Unified School District. At only 8 years of age, she has been through a lot for someone so young.

David Hotchkiss, Ph.D., Chief Technology Officer of Fremont Unified School District has come to present Ashley with her very own ultra light and compact EEPC computer.
He explains, "There are currently 50 students at home/hospital situations. Only three will receive these computers as their illnesses are more long-term in nature."

Until January Ashley had been like any other 3rd grader in Ms. Afnani's class at Blacow Elementary School. Ashley's dad George Nixon recalled, "We started getting notes home from school saying that Ashley was very tired and not eating. Soon we saw a lumpy bulge in her body and rushed her to see her doctor who referred us to Children's Hospital in Oakland.

Ashley was diagnosed with Wilms Tumor, a kidney cancer, usually occurring in children up to the age of 8 and quite rare. "All I remember at that point was the doctor saying that her condition was treatable and that the tumor could be gotten rid of. Ashley's prognosis is good and we take it day by day," says Nixon.

After having the cancerous kidney removed, Ashley began a round of chemotherapy which made her knees a bit wobbly followed by 18 days of radiation-induced nausea. "She's been a real trooper," says Nixon. Ashley adds, "The radiation was the toughest; I'm glad it's over."

As a precautionary measure to get rid of any residual microscopic cancer cells, Ashley has begun another round of chemotherapy (36 weeks). She has to travel to Oakland every three weeks and stay there for 3-5 days so that her treatment can be monitored and her remaining kidney checked to see how it is functioning.

Being out of school for so long and away from classmates is hard for young children, so Hotchkiss developed "Operation CONNECT." This program allows them to participate in school and see their classmates through the gift of a closed-circuit video camera in a laptop computer. The student's classroom will be given one as well.

The program is funded through a grant from the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. According to Ben Drew, Senior Manager of Public Affairs for the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, "We were really touched by the intent and the chance for these students to stay connected with their school and classmates. Through our Community Advisory Council, we look for programs to support that have a healthcare piece and directly benefit the community. We can't fulfill every request, but we were pleased to allocate $5,000 for this worthwhile project."

Hotchkiss showed Ashley how to use her new computer to connect to her classroom online and to see them via Skype. Ashley was amused that someone had "bedazzled" her name on the cover of the computer in sparkly pink letters.

During the demonstration, Ashley's classmates and teacher came into view and all wer able to talk back and forth. Classmates were happy to see her and know that she will be able to connect into her classroom for an hour a day. Ashley's reaction to the new computer, "It's pretty cool."

"Starting up a new system always has a few hiccups," says Hotchkiss. Last year we started with two kids. I call them 'my kids' as I created this program. I take every child's involvement very seriously. Jan Steed, Assistant Director of Pupil Services, identifies the children who could benefit from this program, and brings them to my attention."

Steed thanks Palo Alto Medical Foundation for its support. "Last year we had some needs and went around asking for support and they stepped up really quickly and have been exceptionally helpful. Getting even more contributions can help us increase the number of kids we serve through "Operation CONNECT."

Two other Fremont students received similar compact computers this week: Lynette Santos, a kindergarten student at Oliveira Elementary, who is home due to low blood count as a result of chemotherapy and Hira Zaman, a 6th grader at Patterson Elementary School, who has had multiple organ transplants and also suffers from muscle dystrophy, which makes it difficult to walk.

To find out more about "Operation CONNECT," contact the Fremont Unified School District Pupil Services Department at (510) 659-2534 or

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