Being there for single parents with cancer

Story highlights

  • Jody Farley-Berens helps single parents who are battling cancer
  • Nominations are open for 2016 CNN Heroes
  • Watch "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute" now on CNNgo

Phoenix, Arizona (CNN)Nearly 12 million parents in the United States currently are raising kids on their own.

When single parents face a devastating illness such as cancer, everyday needs like cleaning and cooking can become a struggle.
    Jody Farley-Berens saw the need firsthand, when her childhood friend faced that situation.
    "Making ends meet is insurmountable," said Farley-Berens. "There are so many doctors' appointments, copays, surgeries, prescriptions. And then the inability to work -- any savings that there may have been is gone very quickly."
    She did all she could to help. After her friend passed away, Farley-Berens helped start a nonprofit dedicated to assisting others in similar circumstances.
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    Since 2006, Singleton Moms has provided practical, financial and emotional support to more than 300 parents in the Phoenix area.
    Tiffany Montgomery, 48, was a newly single mom when she was diagnosed with stage-4 breast cancer. Farley-Berens' group pitched in to help, so Montgomery could spend more time with her daughter Ezri, now 10.
    "When you can't really do much and you're looking at the dirt on the floor, it's one more level of stress," she said. "You have these people that come in, that don't know you, and 'You're going to help me with cleaning my house?'"
    "Singleton Moms has actually changed my whole outlook. They care about you, and they're demonstrating their love through their actions."
    I sat down with Farley-Berens to ask her about her work. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
    CNN: Tell me about the woman who inspired your work.
    Farley-Berens: I grew up with a girl named Michelle Singleton who was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 30. She was a single mother of four children and I was a young mom with two kids. And it was scary. You just want to be there to watch them grow up.
    Paying the bills, cleaning her home, making dinner for her kids -- all of that became a real struggle. I wanted to make things as easy as possible for her.
    So when I would go to the store, I'd grab an extra Tide and extra toilet paper. When I would make my meals for my family, I would double it and bring a meal over to her house. Once I helped with an electric bill. I just tried to do those little things that I hoped would relieve her of some stress.
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    About six months after she passed, we got to thinking she couldn't have been the only one. There were other people like her that needed help. And that's how Singleton Moms was born.
    CNN Hero Jody Farley-Berens: Battling 'The Big C'
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    CNN Hero Jody Farley-Berens: Battling 'The Big C' 02:14
    CNN: I'd imagine that many people haven't thought about the struggles of being a single parent with cancer. How are you able to help?
    Farley-Berens: We focus on day-to-day support -- financial assistance, housecleaning, prepared meals, supplies for the home, kids' events. It's that old-fashioned mentality of neighbors helping neighbors.
    Who doesn't like a clean house that they didn't have to clean themselves? We have a team of volunteers that have all been background-checked and they sweep, mop, clean the bathrooms.
    We even have a couple of volunteers who go way above and beyond and will do laundry and fold clothes.
    And so, our parents can come home from chemo, sit on the couch and read a book with their child without having to worry about, "Ugh, the bathroom needs to be cleaned." It's just to allow them to focus on what's important, which is their health and their family.
    CNN: Is this work hard for you sometimes, on a personal level?
    Farley-Berens: About 80% of the parents we support are stage 4, which means that battling cancer is their full-time job. They will not go back to work and for the rest of their lives, they'll be in treatment.
    It's hard. It's a rollercoaster. I've had bouts when a certain mom has passed where I didn't get out of bed for two weeks. And I thought, "Why am I doing this?" But then I come back and remember why.
    And so, while Michelle is and always will be our inspiration, there are now so many others that are just as inspirational. They're why I keep doing what I do.
    CNN: We should note that name of the organization is no longer entirely accurate.
    Farley-Berens: We're not just about moms -- we have dads, too! Not a lot, but if you are a single parent, you need the support. They tend to even get a little special treatment. Everybody's like, "Oh, there's a dad here." And so they give them lots of hugs and pay a lot of attention to them.
    CNN: It's such a serious subject, but your group seems to have a very fun vibe.
    Farley-Berens: We're very social! Once a month, all of our families come to pick up their supplies. We do crafts with the kids, snacks and have a good time. We like having any event because cancer sucks, and there's not a lot of happy that goes with that.
    But life does still go on, so it's really important that these families can just de-stress and have fun.
    No one can understand what they're going through like another single parent with cancer. So giving them the opportunity to meet and support each other is very powerful.
    Cancer can be so defeating. It's an ugly word and it's a sad word. And so, it's my hope that Singleton Moms can bring joy and say to cancer, "You can't defeat us. We are still going to be strong and we're going to celebrate life. And you can't take that away from us."
    Want to get involved? Check out the Singleton Moms website at www.singletonmoms.org/ and see how to help.