UMass Boston

UMass Boston Student Brings Magic to Sick Children Through Princess Nonprofit

03/23/2021| Crystal Valencia

As a nursing student at UMass Boston, Alyssa Banks spends countless hours learning how to care for patients. But every Wednesday she trades in her textbooks for a wig and gown and practices a different kind of medicine.

A sick child participates on a Zoom call with Princess Elsa.

“ We do it to give them a few minutes to just be a kid excited to see a character, not to be a kid with cancer. ”

Banks, 21, is the founder and CEO of the Princess Program Foundation, an organization that aims to bring a little magic to the lives of children battling serious illnesses by giving them one-on-one time with their favorite princesses or superheroes.

“We do it to see the smile on their face, to give them a few minutes to just be a kid excited to see a character, not to be a kid with cancer,” Banks said. “We walk into a room and a kid actually believes that that’s Cinderella. And they light up.”

Banks first got the idea in 2017 when, as a college freshman, she was volunteering at a camp for seriously ill children. A young girl confided to her that she didn’t think she would ever get to go to Disneyland.

“It broke my heart, and I thought, ‘How can I bring Disney to her?” Banks said.

Cinderella reads to a sick patient.

She began by gathering up her friends to dress up and visit hospitals in the Greater Boston area. Soon, she had grown her idea into an organization, with 50 volunteers dressing up as Disney princesses and beloved superheroes and traveling to children’s hospitals, care centers, and therapy locations. She left school and expanded the Princess Program Foundation into a national 501C3 nonprofit organization in January 2020.

“It’s very emotional. You have to be able to walk into a hospital room and take a step back and remember that you’re there to make these children smile,” Banks said. “The hardest part has been losing the kids. We become so attached to every one of them. They’re all so brave. But you transcend the grief to make magic for them.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and hospital visits became nearly impossible, Banks had to think outside the box— Zoom calls with princesses.

“We started with a terminally ill child who wanted a Zoom call from Elsa. She was two years old and fighting aggressive brain cancer,” Banks said. “We got on the computer and talked for an hour. She passed away a few months later. I knew we had to keep doing this for the kids.”

A child battling an illness participates in a Zoom call with the characters from Frozen.

Banks and her volunteers have since spent over 1,000 hours on Zoom talking to their “brave princesses.”

“Prior to the pandemic we only visited with children in the Greater Boston area. Now, we are reaching children via Zoom all over the world,” Banks said. “Today I have a Zoom call as Elsa with a child fighting cancer in Nebraska. We even send them care packages from their favorite character on the call.”

In the last few weeks, they have gotten to spend time with a two-year-old in Illinois battling neuroblastoma, a five-year-old in Pennsylvania with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and a six-year-old in Georgia with Sanfilippo syndrome. They sing, dance, color, play with Play Dough, make crafts, read stories, and just talk about princess life.

“When we’re Elsa and Anna, they ask where Olaf is, and what it’s like to live in an ice castle,” she said. “They show us all of their toys. They want to know what royal balls are like. But they also talk to us about what’s going on. One girl confided in Elsa how sad she was that she didn’t have hair.”

After hearing this from many children, Banks teamed up with the Magic Yarn Project to send the children princess yarn wigs in their care packages.

Alyssa Banks in her home office

Banks started in UMass Boston’s nursing program last fall, after realizing that as much as she loved her nonprofit work, she missed nursing and caring for others. She plans to graduate in December 2023.

Her passion will always be making a difference in the lives of children.

“I’ve always wanted to be a nurse,” she said. “The goal is to work at Boston Children’s Hospital as a nurse and wear the princess gowns on the weekends.”

Banks, who began this “passion project” at 18 and had a registered nonprofit by age 20, encourages people who have an idea to better the world, no matter how challenging, to stick to it.

“I say you can do anything you put your mind to,” she said. “I had no idea what it meant to start a nonprofit. There was a lot of research and support. It took a lot of nights staying up until 4 a.m., but I got there.”

Characters from Frozen, wearing face masks, visit a child battling a serious illness.

While she plans to continue the Zoom calls after the pandemic, Banks is excited that they should be back visiting in hospitals by the end of spring.

“I miss seeing the kids’ faces light up when a character enters the room. It's a way more magical effect in person,” she said.

Banks said while visits have remained steady during the pandemic, fundraising and volunteer recruitment has been a challenge. Learn more about the nonprofit at the Princess Program Foundation, or make a donation at their Go Fund Me page.