Even though no one chooses to go through it, extreme adversity can bring out the best in people.
The faculty, students and parents at Hidden Lakes Elementary School have learned that lesson this year while supporting three little girls and their families as each battled different forms of cancer.
“There wasn’t a rule book,” said Hidden Lakes Principal Melanie Graham. “This is not anything anybody deals with on a regular basis. We just learned to go with our hearts.”
Having three children with cancer at a school of less than 600 kids is a major anomaly. According to the National Cancer Institute, the incidence of childhood invasive cancers is about 15 in 100,000.
On Saturday, to honor the three students, the school hosted “The Fight Like a Girl Rainbow Run” at Keller ISD Stadium benefiting the Team Connor Childhood Cancer Foundation. The 3-kilometer run/walk was a “color run” with a balloon launch and participants running through clouds of color: pink to honor Emme, purple for Sydney and teal blue for Grace. About 1,000 runners and walkers took part in the event, which raised more than $32,000.
The run represented just one way the school community has rallied around the three families.
Many ways to show support
“The school has been absolutely remarkable,” said Cheryl McMahan, mom of Sydney, who just completed third grade. “So many people love to complain about their schools, but I have never seen a school come together as a whole community and support their kids in need.”
The support has ranged from hospital visits to cards and pictures, to spirit days where everyone at Hidden Lakes wore one of the girl’s favorite color. They always have a seat reserved for them in class, even during long absences. Teachers, administrators and staff have worked with the girls to help them keep up with their school work.
Graham said that a life-size photo of Grace Kight in her cap and gown was on the stage during fourth grade graduation last week because Grace was undergoing treatment at M.D. Anderson in Houston. Earlier in the year, one boy shaved his head to honor Grace and another boy decided to grow his hair out for Locks of Love.
In preparation for the Rainbow Run, initiated by fourth grade teacher Angie Rector, each student had a chance to purchase a paper cutout of a balloon and write a message to one of the girls (pink for Emme, purple for Sydney and blue for Grace). All the messages were posted in a “rainbow” in the main hallway.
“It has had a tremendous impact in a good way,” Graham said. “As much as we would like for this not to have happened, we can show students that it brings out the good in everyone. We can talk to our fourth graders about how it offers us perspective to quit dwelling on trivial things, to know there are bigger issues and give to people who have bigger needs at that time.”
‘A feeling of love and care’
The last year and a half has been full of challenges for Sydney McMahan. Mom Cheryl said that most casual observers would never guess what the 9-year-old has gone through.
About halfway through second grade, Sydney’s right eye was not tracking all the way to the left, but her vision was fine. A month or two later, she began throwing up in the morning at school. Cheryl would pick her up and find she had no fever and no other symptoms. Several trips to the doctor later, they ended up at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas.
“We didn’t go home for two months,” Cheryl said.
The tests showed a large tumor on the brain stem. Sydney had brain surgery the next week. Afterward she had to re-learn how to walk, talk, swallow, eat and drink. Several rounds of radiation and three more surgeries followed.
“She has come full circle. She walks, runs and plays with her friends,” Cheryl said. “Now she just wants to be a normal 9-year-old.”
Through it all, the school support has been phenomenal. When Sydney left the hospital, it took a long time to gather all the cards, pictures and mementos sent by kids and staff from Hidden Lakes Elementary. Back at school, Sydney had a “brain buddy,” usually another student, who has helped her maintain balance and taken her to the nurse if she felt nauseous. The brain buddies were taught just what to do if she needed help or fell, Cheryl said.
Grace Kight, who has Ewing’s Sarcoma impacting her lungs, and her family took a break from treatment at M.D. Anderson to make an appearance at Saturday’s Rainbow Run.
Emme Nees and her family also attended the event. Emme just completed first grade and is undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia. The little girl known for her big smile has Down syndrome, which makes her more susceptible to some forms of cancer.
At the Rainbow Run, the three girls were the celebrities. The crowd cheered and applauded for them, and they patiently posed for dozens of pictures with friends and Hidden Lakes staff members and families.
Graham said, “These are important life lessons of giving and caring. A lot of good has come from it.”