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Now cancer-free, Medway teen helps cheer others

Joey Salmeron (right) at the Jimmy Fund Clinic with friend Alexander Tight (left) and Lisa Scherber of Dana-Farber. Joey Salmeron (right) at the Jimmy Fund Clinic with friend Alexander Tight (left) and Lisa Scherber of Dana-Farber. (Sam Ogden)
By Sarah Corrigan
Globe Correspondent / December 23, 2010

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Sixteen-year-old Joey Salmeron of Medway is living cancer-free today, thanks to the doctors and nurses at Dana-Farber/Children's Hospital Cancer Center in Boston who treated him at a time when his chances of survival were as low as 10 percent.

In 2008, when Salmeron decided to organize a major effort to give back, he came up with the slogan first and the details later.

“My slogan is, ‘Every kid deserves a lifetime,’ ’’ said Salmeron, who has been in remission for 12 years.

Now he is the founder of Project Smiles, which provides backpacks full of toys, crayons, coloring books, activity cards, and other little surprises for youngsters undergoing treatment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Jimmy Fund Clinic. Salmeron has raised $8,200 plus toy donations through a letter-writing campaign, and handed out nearly 1,000 backpacks.

“The backpacks have things inside for the kids to do so they don’t have to focus on being at the hospital. They can act like a normal kid,’’ said Salmeron, who counts on his mother, Ana, for support and guidance in making Project Smiles a success. “We try to give educational toys because they might also be missing school.’’

In 1996, Salmeron and his family were living in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, when he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at 20 months. Almost immediately, his parents decided to come to Boston take part in an aggressive treatment course that included two bone marrow transplants, chemotherapy, and radiation.

In 1998, after two trips to Boston for treatment, the Salmerons decided to stay in the United States permanently.

“My family and I go back to Puerto Rico about three times a year, and I also give out bags there too,’’ said Salmeron. “But there, I visit oncology and pediatric units at hospitals as well as HIV and AIDS hospitals and orphanages.’’

Salmeron hopes to someday expand Project Smiles in the United States, following the model he started in Puerto Rico.

He also plans on spreading the word through his involvement with the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership program, a local and international leadership conference for students. Last summer, he gave a speech to 500 program participants and received a standing ovation from his peers, many of whom have pledged to help.

“It makes me feel stronger and happier helping others who haven’t been helped before,’’ said Salmeron, who wants to design cars after college. “I really feel like a normal kid, especially since I don’t remember having cancer. But because I went through it, I get to share it with others and people see me as an inspiration.’’

It’s not only the children whom he inspires, said Lisa Scherber, director of patient and family programs at the Dana-Farber/Children’s Hospital Cancer Center. “The parents of the children Joey helps look at him and think, ‘This could be my child in 12 or 14 years.’ He gives them the hope that they so desperately need,’’ said Scherber.

“And when we receive a donation from one of our own who has come back to help, it just touches my heart.’’

giving spirit

Some volunteer because of challenges they themselves have faced. Others look out on the world and see a need they can fill. But whether providing aid to rural villages in Guatemala or bringing a smile to a sick child close to home, these local teenagers are making a difference.