On the day she was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia on 34th Street, she was placed in Room 34.
That afternoon her father Doug Sheriff turned on the Phillies game, where the pitcher on the mound was wearing No. 34.
Later, the Sheriffs noticed a bus, a taxi and an ambulance marked with 34.
And that summer, while Nicole and Doug Sheriff stood in a busy seafood shop in Cape May, New Jersey, she pulled a number for the queue. It was 34.
“Nicole, what is it with this number?” Doug Sheriff asked.
“Dad, that’s my angel with me,” Nicole said.
Much of Nicole’s life was grounded in her religion. She believed deeply in God, and she believed in angels. It became her mission for every child with cancer to have an angel during their battle, just like she did. That is how Angel 34 was born.
On April 14, 2004, Nicole turned 15. Just three weeks later, she lost her three-year fight to cancer.
Now more than 10 years after her death, Nicole’s legacy lives on through Angel 34, the foundation she established to provide support and assistance to children with cancer and their families in the Lehigh Valley. Since its creation in 2003, Angel 34 has provided nearly $5 million in services through its five visions — the Icee program, financial assistance for families, pet therapy, medical arts scholarships and cancer research — all of which are based on Nicole’s own experiences during her fight against cancer.
Nicole Sheriff is Angel 34.
A positive outlook
Nicole was diagnosed in 2002. For the next three years, she endured multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation to her adolescent body, managing to keep up with homework, friends and field hockey while maintaining a positive outlook on her life.
“I played 19 years of football, and I thought that was tough,” said Doug Sheriff, the president of Angel 34. “After I saw what she went through and what other children have gone through, it’s amazing their strength, their endurance, their ideas, the mentality approach to cancer (compared to) an adult.”
After her passing, Doug and Linda Sheriff went through Nicole’s journals.
“I understand why I have this disease,” reads Nicole’s first journal entry — a note to God. “It’s going to make me a stronger and more compassionate person.”
During her treatment, Nicole met other pediatric cancer patients lacking the support she was fortunate to have. Children without parents. Parents losing their jobs, losing their homes, losing their children. She always asked why.
Doug and Linda Sheriff taught Nicole about the healthcare system and the reality of the disease she and so many other children were battling. The average pediatric cancer treatment lasts about three and a half years, with out-of-pocket expenses ranging between $34,000 and $40,000 annually. Doug Sheriff said it almost always requires one parent to leave their job.
“That’s wrong,” Nicole once told her father. “Something needs to be done.”
The magic Icee
During a grueling round of treatment, Nicole discovered Icees. The frozen, carbonated beverages help soothe mouth sores, nausea and mucositis — common side effects of chemotherapy. Icees were the one drink that would help Nicole swallow, and keep down, her daily rounds of medication. She realized other pediatric cancer patients might benefit from the comfort she found in Icees, so her experience became an Angel 34 staple.
“One time I couldn’t find an Icee for her, so I got her a slushie, and she said, ‘Dad, you know in five minutes that’s coming back up,’” Sheriff said. “And sure enough, she threw it up.”
In between rounds of treatment, Nicole graduated eighth grade and began high school, where she began raising awareness for her Icee program. She regularly met with sports teams to explain the benefits of the drinks for children with cancer. Within a month of beginning the project, Nicole had raised $15,000.
Doug and Linda Sheriff have continued the foundation’s flagship initiative, spending up to $20,000 annually on supplies. Angel 34 Icee machines are now in children’s hospitals throughout the nation, maintained by donations to the foundation. This year, however, the Sheriffs decided the money would be better spent to support families exclusively in the local community.
Michelle Quier, an Angel 34 board member and the owner of Granny Schmidt’s bake shop in Allentown, was immediately drawn to the foundation when she learned of the Icee program.
“I was sold because my brother had passed away from Leukemia and I was his bone marrow donor,” Quier said. “I clearly remember running the streets of Philadelphia looking for (Icees) in the middle of the night, because that’s all the cancer kids can have during chemo. It helps with their throats. It’s just a thing that hit me personally, and it was a total coincidence.”
On Nicole’s 15th birthday — her last birthday — her wish was to install Angel 34’s first-ever Icee machine in the Lehigh Valley Hospital. It was one of the last things she was physically able to do for Angel 34 before she passed away, but the foundation did not stop there.
Angel 34 today
Doug Sheriff said Angel 34 has no corporate backing. Its funding comes from the foundation’s year-round events and donations. Last year, the foundation gave 97 cents of every dollar to assist its families, with a goal this year to donate 100 percent of every dollar it raises to families in the Greater Lehigh Valley.
Nicole believed passion should never be rewarded, so it is in Angel 34’s bylaws that there are to be no paid positions. The original board members still serve today, in addition to many other individuals and sponsors who have since joined the team.
“I’ve been that family that needed the help, and now I’m in a position where I can give back,” Quier said. “I truly can relate to every single thing they’re talking about, so for me…I just feel like this is what I was meant to do. I lost my brother and it was devastating for me, and instead of crawling into a hole, I’ve chosen to throw myself into something that could possibly help someone else.”
While cancer research was a part of Nicole’s vision, Doug Sheriff said it is a very small segment of what the organization does. Someone once asked Nicole why so little was given to cancer research.
“Everyone does that,” Doug Sheriff remembers his daughter saying. “I want to help kids now. There will be a day, and I won’t see it, but there will be a day when there’s a cure for cancer, but kids and families will still have to go through treatments, and their needs will still be there.”
Instead, Doug Sheriff said Angel 34’s main focus is on creating a sense of normalcy for children and their families. The foundation provides pet therapy, arts and crafts, swimming, gardening, day trips and more. It is a support network.
Megan Konrath and her parents, Joe and Millie, learned about Angel 34 while Megan was receiving cancer treatment at Lehigh Valley Hospital, Muhlenberg, in 2007. Megan is now in remission, but the family continues to give back to Angel 34 because of the impact it had on them while she was sick.
“Angel 34 was such a positive influence on our family while we were going through what you never want to go through with a son or daughter,” Joe Konrath said.
Megan said through Angel 34, she met other children experiencing some of the same challenges she was and she remains friends with them today. The same is true for her parents, who valued the opportunity to share “war stories,” advice and encouragement with Linda and Doug Sheriff, as well as the other families they met.
“Whenever we can, we volunteer,” Joe Konrath said. “Angel 34 was so instrumental in helping us through a time we never thought could happen to us, so we do whatever we can do to give back because Angel 34 means so much to us.”
Angel 34 families work with the foundation from a child’s diagnosis up to a year into his or her remission. Doug Sheriff said while some organizations will allow a family to stay with them for the rest of the child’s life, it would become too much of a financial burden for Angel 34, and it’s not what Nicole envisioned.
“For every child we let go, we replace (that child) with two,” Doug Sheriff said.
Angel 34 hosts events throughout the year to raise money for the foundation. Not all events actually involve the children, who are often too sick to attend.
Recurring events include the Childhood Cancer Olympics, the annual Nicole Sheriff 3K Walk and Derek’s Camp Flip Flop. The latter event’s namesake, Derek Graffis, passed away in 2010 after fighting leukemia for four years. He loved the Jersey Shore, so Doug and Linda Sheriff created Camp Flip Flop, which has become an annual Angel 34 event.
Every summer the Sheriffs take children and their families to Wildwood, New Jersey, for four days. During Camp Flip Flop, the families visit a water park, go for surrey rides on the boardwalk and take a trip to Sand Jamm — a high-end beach shop. Sand Jamm owner Stephen Mendel has been a supporter of Angel 34 ever since he learned of the foundation four years ago when Doug Sheriff walked into his store to buy ChapStick.
Every year during Camp Flip Flop, Mendel invites the children and their families to come to Sand Jamm and pick out one item of their choice.
“I get to spend time with each child, and there have been children over the years that have come back into the store,” Mendel said. “People send us beautiful letters and cards and thanks.”
Mendel said customers come to his store daily and make donations to Angel 34. They are invited to sign their name on a paper flip flop, which is then hung around the store. To date, Sand Jamm has raised nearly $6,000, which contributes directly to funding for Camp Flip Flop.
While many of Angel 34’s activities and events occur in the Greater Lehigh Valley, a more private operation is taking place in the Sheriff’s own home.
The Angel Field: Faith, hope and love
The Angel Field is a sprawling 5,000-square-foot home in Nazareth. Situated on four acres, the Angel Field is home to Doug and Linda Sheriff, and serves as the headquarters for Angel 34. It opened its doors in 2008 and is in the first stage of becoming a bed and breakfast for Angel 34 families. Today it serves as a sacred retreat for children with cancer.
Doug Sheriff said there is a lot to offer to families when they are in the Lehigh Valley. Angel 34 regularly sends them to Dorney Park, Sesame Place and Iron Pigs baseball games, but the Angel Field is the heart of the operation.
The Sheriffs moved to the Angel Field in 2007, a few years after Nicole passed away. The home is grounded in Founder’s Hall, a large social space named in Nicole’s honor. Founder’s Hall features photos of the Sheriff’s smiling daughter, comfortable seating and year-round Christmas lights, all nestled against an enormous picturesque window that the property overlooks.
The words faith, hope and love — which inspired Nicole and Angel 34 — adorn the house on shelves, walls and picture frames.
The Angel Field currently has three bedrooms available to temporarily house Angel 34 children and families. Each themed bedroom — the Disney Room, the Angel Room and the Ocean Room – is decorated with memorabilia Nicole collected during her 15 years of life. They are bright, homey and reminiscent of a child’s dream bedroom.
Though Nicole never lived in Angel Field, her presence and influence are strong.
When Nicole realized she was dying, she confided in her teacher Sue Carlson about her fears of never graduating high school, going to college or getting married. She realized her parents would never have grandchildren.
“Here, now, Linda and I have hundreds of grandkids that we can spoil, and send back with their parents,” Doug Sheriff said. “But she gave us a gift that allows us to put our love for her into the foundation, and that’s what makes it very unique.
“It’s not like we started this, because it would have a totally different meaning.”