No one knows what it’s like to care for a child with cancer. Not until you’ve walked in those shoes.

That’s why Maria Rovers wanted to do something special to recognize the first anniversary of her son’s diagnosis. She wanted to bring joy to kids and their parents.

Smiles for Sean, an effort to donate smiley face pillows and stress balls to UPMC-Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, was born. They literally wanted to deliver smiles.

“He uses smiles to get through the pain,” Maria said of her son, who has undergone radiation and surgeries in the last year.

Doctors located a rare tumor, a myxoid mesenchymal tumor, on 10-year-old Sean’s brain Oct. 22, 2017. He was in surgery two days later. Life for the Rovers was never the same.

As the last year has been filled with doctor appointments and MRIs, the Rovers understand that may be a new reality for Sean and the family. He started six weeks of radiation at the end of May, which is on top of regular doctor appointments, checkups and MRIs. He’s had two surgeries to remove tumors. He is also going to weekly therapy sessions because Maria said the family is concerned that he isn’t talking enough about what he’s experienced in the last year.

Maria said she wanted to honor her son for his immense bravery through some difficult moments. Through everything, he is a happy, resilient child.

Eileen Wallace, a school nurse at the Bethel Park School District, helped Maria with the donation effort. Originally, Maria thought she would just pay for the items out of her own pocket. But she posted on Sean’s support Facebook page, ”Support and Smiles for Sean,” what she was looking to donate. The response was overwhelming. Maria said people would hand her cash in the grocery store to purchase toys. Strangers from all over would ship smiley face pillows. It grew beyond her expectations. Looking back, she would have never anticipated such a response.

Now, she would love to turn the effort into a yearly project to spread positivity and awareness, already working to brainstorm ideas. Her ultimate goal is to help fund research into her son’s rare cancer. For now, she’s content delivering smiles.

She wants parents to know the importance of annual checkups for their kids. Push for more tests, because some diseases, like Sean’s, are very difficult to detect.

“Be your child’s advocate. No one else knows your child better than you,” Maria said.

It hasn’t been easy. Sean is a precocious, curious child, but not the same before his diagnosis. He’s more outgoing and vocal now, whereas before she was shy and quiet. One thing that hasn’t changed is his love of science and space. He has aspirations of becoming an inventor.

Maria said that in the last year, she’s prioritized family time above everything else. The family used to be busy, rushing around and focused on work. Priorities have shifted. Life revolves around Sean’s care, which isn’t always easy.

“All you can do is brush it off,” Maria said of any challenges that may arise. “Take it one day at a time. Tomorrow is a new day. focus on family time.”

“Be persistent,” Wallace added.

The Rovers family wouldn’t have been able to get through this enormously stressful year without support. That support comes in many different forms, from people that don’t even realize they’re helping. Through the whole ordeal, Maria said they’ve relied heavily on friends and family. They’ve also met several other people along the way, facing similar struggles.

“Those things mean a lot for families that go through a similar road we went through and are still going through,” Maria said.

A tiny gesture of kindness can mean the world. That’s the aim of the effort.

Those interested in contributing in “Smiles for Sean” can do so via his support Facebook page.


Photo courtesy of Maria Rovers

Courtesy of Maria Rovers

Sean Rovers at Legoland.

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