University of California San Francisco
Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

The Firefly Project

"Thanks a million for sending your latest letter. As I read it I realized that through there is over a 40 year difference between us, your words ring true for my soul. What I see in life is that though there are things that remain the same and predictable, the only constant is change."
- Barbara H., Patient

Firefly Project

About the Firefly Project

High school students, along with UCSF Medical/Nursing students exchange hand-written letters and personal artwork with adult patients who are coping with life-threatening illness. Students learn what it feels like to cope with serious illness, undergo chemotherapy, face the unknown and most importantly; how not to be afraid of asking serious questions. Patients have the opportunity to give back to their communities as they teach the students about hope and pain, and remember what it was like to be a teenager. Students share their lives including their own pain of growing up and feelings about their future. Bridges are built and friendships created - even after the school year ends.

Approximately 500 adults living with life-threatening illnesses have participated since the inception of this project. Over 50 of these patients have passed away - a few of them have died while participating in the project. Students then have an opportunity to grieve and heal and to acknowledge that dying is part of living. At the end of the school year, Art for Recovery holds a healing service attended by the students and patients where they meet each other for the first time. This program always delivers a meaningful experience for both teenagers and patients who are coping with loss, pain, anger, loneliness and isolation. Students who have participated in the past have remarked that while they may not remember what they learned in History or English they will always remember their patient/pen pals.

The project continues its 17th year involving students and patients throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2006, there were 70 student and 40 patient participants. Each year since 2003, a public reading has been staged at year-end. The facilitator of the Firefly Project works with a script consultant to shape the excerpts from the letters into a dramatic form. Finally, the patients and students read excerpts from their letters on stage before a community audience.

A Firefly Manual is available for anyone who would like to learn how to replicate the Firefly Project. For information about obtaining a Firefly Project Manual, please email Cindy Perlis directly.

Participate in the Firefly Project

  • Do you like to write letters?
  • Do you enjoy mentoring a teenager?
  • Would you like to exchange letters and art work with a UCSF medical, nursing or pharmacy student or a Bay Area teenager?
  • Would you like to remember what it was like to be a teenager?

Click for more information on how to participate

The Firefly Project is generously funded by: Mount Zion Health Fund, The Nathan Cummings Foundation, The Lloyd Symington Foundation, The Auxiliary at UCSF Mount Zion Medical Center.