Corona Virus Quarantine Day #179: My Why: Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month: September 15, 2020:
This year is my 19th year of teaching. That officially makes me old.
But more importantly I often reflect on the kids that left their mark on me over the years as well as the ones I may have left my mark on as well.
That being said. I have posted a lot on social media about the Lemon Out event we host each year at St. James. It is an event that is very near to my heart and something that I want everyone to understand.
This year I am teaching a social welfare non profit class and I could not be more excited about it. The whole purpose of the class is to help the students at St. James live out our Christian mission to serve others. Now, some of these kids are actually exploring a career in social welfare, others have interest in non-profits, while some just took the class because they want to get involved in important stuff.
That being said…I could NOT be more excited about teaching it. I have always been a “see a need fill it” kind of person and those are my kind of people. I also have always had a big heart for service and helping those in need. I know this comes from my Catholic upbringing but also is rooted very deeply in my relationship with my own mom. She is the most generous person that I know. It’s truly insane and I’m so grateful for her example.
Have you ever been the person that wants to help but don’t know where to start? My class is for that person. I want to show these young men and women that when there is a need in our community we can do our part to fill it. I am filled with hope that this class will do just that.
I will have guest speakers galore and people who have really changed this crazy world we are living in will come explain to them how they got started.
However, a few days ago I spoke to my class about how and why the lemon out started at St. James 6 years ago. I feel compelled to write down my why now.
When I started teaching at St. James I had no idea how much that decision to leave my job at the time at Mill Valley High school (just down the road) and come to SJA would change my life.
In my 15 years at St. James I have met, taught and worked with some pretty amazing people. I have also watched in horror as numerous students at SJA were diagnosed with cancer and attended three funerals for those students who lost their battle with cancer.
Lauren Dopp was in our first graduating class. She was a tiny little spitfire that had so much spunk and spirit. She was a cheerleader and one of the truly sweetest young women you could ever meet. I had her in American History class her junior year but that is when she got quite sick, having been diagnosed with cancer for the 2nd time in her young life. She fought and beat it as a young child. She often missed class but when she was present there was always a joy left in her wake. My favorite memory of her was on junior retreat when she shared a piece of her heart with the girls in that room, I’m pretty sure it’s a moment none of us will ever forget. When Lauren died our community was heartbroken. Her best friend, Jessica Eisman, gave her eulogy. I had never seen a young woman be so strong in my entire life. It was profoundly sad, yet also somehow, very beautiful. Lauren is missed by her family and friends. Lauren left her mark on me.
Several years later another student, Connor McCullough was diagnosed with brain cancer. I had taught his brother and Bryan had coached both boys in basketball at SJA. He was a gentle giant. Quiet, yet sarcastic and funny, so very tall, but so sweet and good natured. One of my favorite memories of Connor was when he and his brother were stranded at SJA due to a snow storm and they had to wait out the roads a bit before driving home as they lived really far away from school. So Bryan invited them to our house, which was close by, so they didn’t have to sit in the school alone. We fed them and chatted and Connor and I played Mario Kart. It was my first time playing and he crushed me. He was pretty proud of how badly he beat me and it makes me smile to think about that to this day. When Connor passed it was incredibly hard for our students. I can remember sitting with my classes when we got the news. There was a painful quiet and an inexplicable pain. It’s really hard to explain to kids why kids die. His funeral was another incredibly difficult time.
Then there was Zach. Zach Graas was the brother of one of my volleyball managers. He was diagnosed with brain cancer the summer after his senior year. I had taught his older brother Kyle as well. Zach was a cool dude. He loved music and had an electric smile. His smile could light up a whole room. While I never really taught him in class I knew him through his sister Haylee and brother Kyle. I watched as that family struggled with his diagnosis and treatment for many years. Zach fought that damn cancer for a long time before it took his life almost 2 years ago. Somehow Zach seemed to fight cancer the whole time with a smile on his face. He was beloved by all who knew him.
Finally, there is Callyn. Kim, her mom, was one of my college roommates and teammates at KU. She is a dear and close friend that I love so very much. When her daughter, Callyn, was diagnosed before her 3rd birthday it was such a shock and so very heartbreaking. To watch someone you know and love so closely go through the ups and downs and uncertainties that is childhood cancer is a struggle to say the least. The feeling of helplessness is beyond frustrating. Kim and her husband Mike and their two kids Taylor and Callyn are a constant source of my “why”. Callyn has beat cancer twice. She is now 8. She is an absolute rock star and her entire family took the pile of crap they were handed and went out and did something about it. I am profoundly proud to know them and be even a tiny part of their goodness.
Taking all of this in consideration…I couldn’t kick the feeling that I wanted to help. I wanted to do something. But what?
The words “do more” were just playing over and over in my head.
So “do more” it was.
That is how the Lemon Out came to be. At the time I went to my Spirit Club kids and told them what I wanted to do. We figured we could do a raffle and bake sale at the event and I started contacting families of heroes to attend. The items we got for that first raffle were all from people someone in my Spirit Club knew. For example, my dentist gave a free teeth whitening. The school photographer gave a free senior portrait session. One of the Spirit Club member’s mom was a hair dresser and she offered to do a free hair session for homecoming. Someone donated a Kendra Scott necklace. We didn’t have a lot but we threw that thing together in a couple week’s time. And…it was awesome.
The best part of the night was when we read those heroes bio’s and they walked through our team tunnel to the screaming, hooting and hollering of our student section. Our awesome student section and our incredible drum line gave them the hero welcome they deserved. The smiles on their sweet faces when they had the moment of being celebrated was life changing for me. I of course, cried like a baby, as did most people in attendance. Just hearing the struggles these families face each day with a child who battles cancer puts a lot into perspective.
It was a moving and emotional moment. It was the “more” I was looking for. I was hooked and knew this was an event that St. James Academy would be planning and executing every single year. I’m so grateful for my administration always saying “yes” to my ideas and plans to make it grow over the years. And it has grown so beautifully over the past 5 years.
Another very important thing that hosting this event and knowing all of these people who have fought pediatric cancer is that, I’ve learned a lot. For example, I learned that less than 4% of all federal funds go to treat pediatric cancer. I also learned that behind accidents, cancer is the #1 killer of children. I learned that there are 12 different types of pediatric cancers and over 100 different subgroups. I could go on all day about all the “things” I’ve learned.
But most importantly I’ve met a ton of families whose whole world got turned upside down. All of these families have managed more than I can ever dream of managing in my lifetime. All of them did it with enormous grace and a bad assery that I could never match. Also, these kids are incredible. They are stronger than we could ever dream to be. They go through more than a child ever should, but they don’t complain and they even smile through it all. Kids are so resilient. They are my heroes.
I will never know or understand why things like cancer happen to children. It’s not for me to understand. But I will continue to “do more” for these kids and their families because it fills me up. It gives me purpose in this crazy world we live in. It makes a difference.
That first year we made a little over $2,500. I remember feeling like that was a really successful year, especially with how quickly we planned it. Last year, in year 5, we made close to $38,000. In 5 years we have raised a total of $78,879. This year, in year 6, my goal was to cross the $100,000 mark. Covid. Damn Covid…is going to make that hard. But, I have confidence we can make it happen…with help!
We can’t have our raffle this year. We can’t host our hero event. We can’t do anything normal because of Covid. But, we can still have hope. We can still have faith that it will work out! If I learned one things from all these families I’ve come in contact with through our event it’s that hope is necessary to make it through the pediatric cancer journey.
On September 21, and September 22nd we are allowing kids to wear a yellow shirt to school for $5.00. ALL of the money collected will go to our 2020 event. We have about 900 people in our building. That’s $4,500. Also, anyone who wants to can donate directly to our event page as well. I will be running a contest in another week or so where you can win a prize, so stay tuned to my FB page for that. That may be way you can help, if you are so inclined. We have $10,000 to go this year. That’s a long ways…but with hope and some really special prayers I think we can get there!
The Lemon Out event at St. James is deeply personal for me and it is my goal to make it deeply personal for our student body and our community. Pediatric Cancer has left its ugly mark on our community and whether or not any individual student knows the students we’ve lost or the several we have walking the halls right now that fought cancer and beat it…it’s important to belong to something and to stand up to injustice when we see it. Man, I hope I can leave that mark on all the students that grace our halls. That would be awesome.
Some images of Lemon Outs of the past.