TOMS RIVER — Now in its fourth decade providing "as normal as possible" of an experience for Ocean County children diagnosed with cancer, the nonprofit Ocean of Love for Children with Cancer has spent the last year adjusting to the challenges of COVID-19, but eagerly awaits a day in the near future when it can hold a "big hug event" with the many families it serves.

Executive Director Theresa Segui said the group's founding grew out of the childhood cancer cluster long suspected to be connected to the chemical company Ciba-Geigy, and pollutants that were found in Toms River's drinking water, a case that garnered national attention.

Its reach soon extended beyond Toms River to the rest of Ocean County.

And since 1988, Segui said the organization has helped more than 600 families, who in turn have become part of the ever-larger Ocean of Love family. The group gives financial and emotional support: transportation to and from hospitals, help with bill payments, things like grocery and gas gift cards, and in some cases, college scholarships.

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COVID forced the closure of Ocean of Love's "safe haven," its home office in Toms River, but seeing as many of the children who benefit from the group's efforts are immune-suppressed, Segui said that decision was a no-brainer.

Since then, in-person game nights and holiday parties have transitioned to Zoom, aiming to fend off isolation at every turn.

Support groups continue on the virtual platform as well.

"Our biggest goal through all of this is to make sure that the family makes it through as whole as possible," Segui said. "We include the siblings in everything as well, and we make sure that they always have food on the table."

Keeping in mind that the treatment journey for many children stretches on for multiple years, Ocean of Love will be cautious in its eventual reopening, according to Segui.

Until then, staffers will endeavor to focus on the positive, not the negative, keeping a close watch on the mental health of each family member.

"As it is, when your child gets diagnosed with cancer, you're already adjusting to your new normal," Segui said. "This just added a little more to it."

Ocean of Love for Children with Cancer does have several local, community business partners, but relies predominantly on donations and fundraisers, plus the involvement of its returning families, to continue to operate.

Find out more at oceanoflove.org.

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