PITTSFIELD — Over the past few years, 15-year-old Madison Quinn has made dozens of new friends. She shares their images on her Facebook page. Some stand smiling in the sun.
Others flex their muscles in superhero T-shirts, heads high with confidence. Many show a range of expressions, from fatigue to fortitude, as they lie in hospital beds.
From toddlers to teenagers, Quinn's friends all have cancer in common. But in her eyes, they are the "Strong Little Souls" she features on Facebook and works to support.
In addition to corresponding with them through social media, text messages, in-person visits and phone calls, Quinn sends care packages of trinkets, toys, clothing and other donated items not only to kids who are sick, but to their siblings and parents.
When it comes to families supporting a person with a cancer diagnosis, Quinn said, "they're going through it, too."
The city teenager taps her savings, but couldn't do this without support. Last holiday season, she packed and shipped 60 care packages, and has a goal of sending out 100 this season, provided that she receives contributions of goods and money.
Last month, Strong Little Souls received a boost from the community through a donation drive held at the Boys & Girls Club of the Berkshires in Pittsfield.
"These kids I work with are my world," said Quinn, a junior at Pittsfield High School.
And the kids and families she connects with seem to think the world of her.
"Madison is an amazing person. She understands what we're going through," said Tina Palatino of Springfield, the mother of 9-year-old Landen Palatino. The boy's father, James Losaw, is a police officer working with the K-9 unit of the Pittsfield Police Department.
Landen, who Quinn got to know through her Strong Little Souls initiative, passed away in August after enduring 20 months of treatment and surgery for an aggressive brain tumor known as glioblastoma.
Quinn was there from the beginning, befriending the family. She named her holiday campaign the "Landen Loves Toys Drive."
"There are amazing teenagers everywhere you look, but she's certainly special," said Palatino. Countless friends and strangers came to the family's aid, she said, lending kind words and support through goods, services and money.
Quinn continues offering support through messages and visits with Landen's little sister, Audrina, and checking in with Tina.
"She gets that, too, how just because Landen is no longer with us, keeping his memory alive is still so important. I think she shares that [notion] with me more than anyone else in life," Palatino said.
"Once a child is gone, support quickly starts dwindling, but those families still needs support. They still need to people to say, 'Hey I'm thinking of you.' I know these things are still very much needed in my life," Palatino said.
Allies and stats
Over the past few years, Quinn has found allies from the Berkshires and beyond, like local teacher and children's book author Dan Sadlowski. The two have traveled together to visit kids with cancer in hospitals and homes. Sadlowski regularly donates copies of his book, "Finding Brooklyn — And the Next Great Superhero," for Strong Little Souls care packages.
"She's driven, and she's the perfect person to give back to," Sadlowski said. As a teacher, he said it's important to support young people striving to achieve their goals.
Quinn has raised thousands of dollars on her own, starting a few years ago by enlisting her younger brother to go around their neighborhood with her collecting bottles and cans and counting change, nickel by nickel.
Now, local businesses have rallied to her cause, hosting fundraising events and offering to collect donated items on her behalf.
Along the way, Quinn has schooled herself in this dread disease. She is a close reader of materials from the federal government's National Cancer Institute.
By the end of the year, an estimated 10,270 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed among children from birth to 14 years. About 1,190 children are expected to die this year from the disease, making cancer one of the leading causes of death from disease among children.
In conversation, she'll go on at length about how less than 5 percent of the organization's taxpayer-funded budget goes into pediatric cancer research, an issue the institute addresses in its fiscal 2019 budget proposal.
"It angers me," Quinn said. "That's what I want to bring awareness to. Everyone knows that October's Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but how many people know about the gold ribbon and that September's Childhood Cancer Awareness Month?"
Though still in high school, Quinn feels compelled to someday work in the field of pediatric oncology. She said she would feel right at home as a doctor at Boston Children's Hospital or New York's Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
She has spoken with young people during their final hours. "A 13-year-old should not have to think about dying," she said.
Quinn wears a rainbow of wristbands bearing the names of such children. Her closet is filled with T-shirts from benefit 5-kilometer races and national youth events like CureFest.
"Losing them is like losing someone in my family," Quinn said of her Strong Little Souls. She said she has had dreams of kids dying in her arms. She holds late-night chats with peers coping with cancer. They talk about the meaning of life.
To recharge, Quinn said she finds solace in playing music. Sometimes, she leans on her boyfriend, Brady Maroni.
"She's doing something very few people can and will do. It takes a really strong woman to do that," Maroni said.
Palatino, the mother of Landen, has witnessed how Quinn responds to the sadness and struggle.
"Cancer with children can be so heart-wrenching," Palatino said. "But she goes out into a sad situation and says, 'I'm going to make this kid smile.' She's not afraid of the uncomfortable stories. She's there, she's looking forward, and she wants to make a difference and make sick kids feel happy and comfortable, like a normal child."
Palatino said her son loved having visits with Quinn. On his most tiring days, he would fight to open his eyes just to see her.
Quinn said it is people like Landen who keep her going.
"I love being with them, working with them, interacting with them and their families," she said.
"They're strong. These kids are creative and young, but they're losing their innocence because they're facing cancer. But they're not always heard. I feel like in some way I'm being their voice and speaking out."
Jenn Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 413-496-6239.