When Sharon Litwak’s son, Oscar, was four months old, he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. During the next four years of Oscar’s life, he experienced intense treatments. It was challenging for Oscar to spend hours upon hours in the hospital — except when he was able to play in the playroom. Then, he lit up and became a kid again. But, not every hospital had a playroom, and when it did, the room was often closed.
At the age of four, Oscar died in his parents’ arms at home. One month later, Sharon and her husband founded the Oscar Litwak Foundation, a nonprofit that supplies mobile playrooms to hospitals across North America. In our conversation, Sharon shared how she found the strength to create a foundation in her son’s memory and how MOMentum changed her perspective on life.
What inspired you to take part in MOMentum?
I grew up in Mexico City in a tight Jewish community. Judaism has always inspired me and when I learned that MOMentum would help me bring more Judaism into my life, I jumped at the opportunity. I was looking for ways to become more connected to Jewish life. Also, at the time, I was doing a lot for other people and MOMentum offered me the chance to do something for myself.
How did MOMentum impact you?
The entire trip was one big highlight, but the greatest highlight of all was connecting with myself. Soaking up different lessons from the classes helped me figure out where I wanted to go in my life. I realized that everyone on the trip was dealing with something, and having the opportunity to share my experiences with my JWRP sisters, listen to their reflections, and grow together was so important for me. I returned to my home in Los Angeles with new traditions that I wanted to share with my daughters, and with new meaning in my life. I understood that we’re all in this world for a reason and that it’s up to us to figure out what that is. I became a more positive person, who tries to appreciate each day, meet every challenge head-on, slow down when necessary, and learn from each experience.
After your son, Oscar, passed away, you created the Oscar Litwak Foundation and turned a heart-wrenching tragedy into a beautiful mission. How did you find the strength to do this?
We knew that we wanted to do something to honor Oscar’s life. My husband bought the book, Nonprofits for Dummies, and one month later, we founded our foundation. But, I honestly don’t know how I had the strength to do it initially. When Oscar died, I had a three-month-old baby to care for, and I got up every morning because I needed to be there for her.
Once we began donating mobile playrooms to hospitals, we saw how the kids responded. We saw Oscar’s smile and laughter on other kids’ faces. While playing, we saw children feel like children again. These children are dealing with difficult illnesses, and it makes me so happy to see them happy. It helps fill the void that I’ve felt since Oscar’s death. To this day, Oscar continues to inspire us and many other people to bring joy and play to hospitals.
What would you like to tell other women who have faced hardships and would like to take action in meaningful ways?
Take one day at a time. There’s no right or wrong way to respond to a tragedy. But realize that this is a heartbreaking period of your life, and that eventually, things will change.
In the meantime, find something that makes you happy — whether that’s reading a book or drinking tea with your friends. Surround yourself with positive people and a good community. When Oscar died, I didn’t have to worry about feeding my family because my friends prepared meals for us. And I can still call friends and tell them, “I can’t get out of bed today,” and they’ll tell me to stay in bed because they’ll do what needs to get done.
When Oscar died, I knew that I had a choice. I could be sad for the rest of my life. Or, I could embrace the pain, find something meaningful to do, and keep going. We may not have control over what happens to us, but we can control how we respond.
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