Peter R. van Dernoot ’57: Hope Springs from Tragedy

A participant gets “a close up look at cancer” in the program at Lawrence Memorial Hospital Oncology in Lawrence, Kansas. (Peter R. van Dernoot)
A participant gets “a close up look at cancer” in the program at Lawrence Memorial Hospital Oncology in Lawrence, Kansas. (Peter R. van Dernoot)

The gut-wrenching day that Alice and Peter R. van Dernoot ’57 told their two children that their mother had lung cancer is forever etched in Peter’s mind.

Their son, age 12, sat silently as tears filled his eyes. Their daughter, age 10, leapt from the booth in the quiet restaurant and screamed, “NOOO!” at the top of her lungs, a sound so heartbreaking he can hear it today, more than 40 years later.

Alice, then only 40 years old and the picture of health, a non-smoker who never ate junk food and ran five miles a day, had developed a form of lung cancer so rare that only a dozen others had ever faced it. In addition to managing his own anger, disbelief and fear, van Dernoot needed to comfort and care for his wife, and soothe his children.

“My kids were devastated,” said van Dernoot, now 83. “The pain of that experience never really goes away. I wish my children’s path through life had been different, but you have to deal with what you get.”

After his wife passed, van Dernoot’s focus was on raising his children and continuing his career as a public relations executive.

Peter R. van Dernoot '57 (Peter R. van Dernoot)
Peter R. van Dernoot ’57 (Peter R. van Dernoot)

But in 2001, some 20 years after his wife’s death, a chance business assignment led him to create a foundation for children whose parents are battling cancer. It has been one of the most gratifying accomplishments of his life.

Parents Don’t Know How to Talk to Kids about Cancer

The Children’s Treehouse Foundation, based in Denver, Colo., is an emotional-support, group-based program that serves families in 26 states and six countries, including Japan. Van Dernoot, the founder and chairman of the Board, said his goal is to have a program in the remaining 24 states in three years, when the Foundation celebrates its 20th anniversary. There is also interest in establishing programs in Europe and Kenya.

But it was never van Dernoot’s intention to start the foundation in the first place. “Many amazing things in life happen by accident,” he said.

In 2000, he owned his own public relations company in Denver, and one of his clients was a prominent healthcare company. The company executives asked him to investigate a program at a nearby hospital that offered emotional support for children whose parents have cancer. There, he saw children’s drawings and poems about their ordeal, as well as glowing program recommendations from the parents.

“I was awestruck,” he said. “I still get chocked up thinking about it. I could immediately see how the program helped the children with their fear and anxiety and confusion. Parents, tragically, don’t know how to talk to their children about cancer. I thought, ‘This is exactly the program I wish my kids had 20 years ago.'”

He thought the art work and testimonials from the program would make a great book, and asked the families for permission to publish them. That was the easy part. Next came rejection letters from 110 publishers, who were uncomfortable with the subject. But he persisted, and eventually a friend with connections in the industry was able to connect him with a publisher. The book, Helping your Children Cope with Cancer, is still in circulation.

A next step, he thought, would be to raise a great deal of money to have multiple hospitals form programs serving these young children. But when he presented the idea to a group of social workers, they told him that he needed to devise the program, and then share it with hospitals. They also introduced him to Sue Heiney, a professor of nursing at the University of South Carolina, who was the leading expert on the impact of cancer on families.

“I said to her, ‘My family went through this. I know how horrible it is. I would like to help thousands of people.'” he recalled. She quickly became an ally and began developing the program curriculum.

The Children’s Treehouse Foundation had its first workshop in December 2002, drawing only 15 people, mostly social workers and nurses. But one participant was from a prominent cancer center and the faculty there quickly spread the word.

Now the Foundation offers 57 programs of CLIMB®—Children’s Lives Include Moments of Bravery—in the U.S. and 21 abroad in six countries. Thousands of children have completed the program, which is run by social workers and medical professionals at leading cancer centers. Along the way, they’ve had support from corporate giants, including Avon cosmetics, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Novartis.

“Every year in the U.S., 1.7 million adults are diagnosed with cancer. That’s horrible enough. But each year there are 750,000 kids under the age of 18 who are going to hear, ‘I’m sorry to tell you, your mom or dad has cancer.’ I know how devastating that is. Their lives may never be the same,” he said. “Without professional support, many will have psychological problems, some throughout their lives.”

“I had a mom with breast cancer tell me she should could handle the chemo and the hair loss, but the hardest part was telling her daughters about having cancer,” he said. “We help tell people how to do that. It’s gratifying.”

Program Emphasizes Understanding Cancer, Expressing Emotions

Children enrolled in the CLIMB® program attend a two-hour program for six evenings. The program starts with the basics, explained on a child’s level: what is cancer? What caused it? Can you catch it? What’s the treatment? The goal is to reduce the stress and anxiety and open a dialogue between children and parents.

“You tell a 6-year-old that Mom has cancer and they think it happened because they were bad,” he said. Using arts and crafts, writing, mask-making and other tools, children can express their feelings. In a separate room, their parents are briefed on what’s occurring. On the way home, they can begin a dialogue, which probably wouldn’t occur without the program.

“We demystify the fear of cancer. Now they have a cadre of friends who understand them, and that makes life much easier,” he said. “Many of our kids ultimately want to come back, and help other kids through it.”

Until recently, van Dernoot was the sole administrator of the program. He has written hundreds of letters, made many phone calls and knocked on doors to ask for financial support for the program.

“I frequently read of wonderful philanthropists making multi-million dollar grants to research organizations to advance research to eradicate cancer. I think that is very noble,” he said. “But until that occurs, someone has to help those new, 750,000 kids, every year, who are going to be devastated when they learn that mom or dad has cancer. It seems we’re the only national/international organization with an appropriate mission statement, ‘To ensure that every child whose parent is diagnosed with cancer is given the early tools and emotional support to cope.’ Clearly, we still have lots of work yet to do. And of course, it takes funding.”

‘Hoping I Can Make UConn Proud of Me!’

Van Dernoot has fond memories of his years as a marketing student at UConn. He remembers the professors were bright and the students were engaged. He served as president of the Business School Marketing Club prior to graduating in 1957.

Van Dernoot last visited UConn 10 years ago and was surprised at the changes, even having some difficulty finding familiar buildings.

“I’m especially pleased to be able to say I’m a UConn School of Business grad,” he said. “It has grown from a statewide business school to a global one. It has always been a great school and was perfect for me.”

A New England native, van Dernoot spent most of his childhood in Massachusetts, moving to Wilton, Conn. for his senior year in high school. His fondness for skiing drew him out West and after 20 years in senior marketing positions with international companies, he opened his own public relations firm.

He has also served on the boards of Colorado Special Olympics, Junior Achievement, the Denver Chamber Orchestra and the American Electronics Association, Rocky Mountains. In 2005, he received the Human Service Professional of the Year award from the National Association of Social Workers, Colorado Chapter.

His advice for college students is to follow their dreams and disregard the naysayers.

“A lot of people will tell you, ‘That won’t work,’ or ‘You can’t do it,'” he said. “If your idea has merit, people will see the value of it. A lot of people will be there to help you. If you have a great idea, don’t give up. You can make it happen.'”

“When I was a kid at UConn, I never would have thought I’d be running international cancer programs, or doing something decent for people. I’ve had a good life, all things considered, but what gives me the greatest pleasure is starting this program. I know what an impact it has had on so many people.”

“I hope people read this and say, ‘That kid has a great idea,'” he joked, then added more seriously. “I’m just an old marketing guy, but I’m hoping I can make UConn proud of me!”