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PES student's struggle inspires Leukemia fundraiser

by Brendan Berube
Editor - Record-Enterprise
March 21, 2012
PLYMOUTH — Students and staff at Plymouth Elementary School (PES) gathered in the school's gymnasium last week to launch a new fundraising effort in support of childhood leukemia treatment that was inspired by a survivor in their own midst.

From now until March 30, students throughout the school will be collecting loose change from parents, friends, and their own piggy banks as part of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Pennies for Patients program. Proceeds from the fundraising initiative benefit children diagnosed with leukemia and other blood cancers and their families, and also support the quest to find a cure.

The cause is one that hits close to home for students at PES, who have dedicated the fundraising effort to Lydia Marunowski, a first grader recovering from her own bout with the disease.

Lydie, as the precocious six-year-old is known to her family and friends, was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia two years ago, and has been undergoing treatment at Speare Memorial Hospital.

Her mother Jessica (who works in the school's front office) announced last week, to a burst of cheers and applause from the audience, that Lydie (who she described as a "very extraordinary first grader" and a "brave little champ") is now "well on her way to recovery."

Lydie's nurses from Speare's Oncology department recalled first meeting the young girl who would become on of their strongest patients two years ago, and said her optimistic outlook continues to astound them. Leukemia, they said, is "something she has…not who she is."

Carrie Kiley, owner of Top Gun Gymnastics Academy, where Lydie trains, said she was amazed by the youngster's resilience and refusal to let the illness and fatigue that accompanied her treatment stop her from attending classes. Inspired by the little girl who she and her students have come to see as a hero, Kiley announced that Top Gun would be partnering with PES to raise funds in support of the Pennies for Patients program.

Providing an overview of the program, which raised $26 million in support of cancer research and treatment last year alone, Kerrie Drushella of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Northern New England Chapter enlisted some enthusiastic volunteers to help her demonstrate, for the benefit of younger students, how Leukemia and other blood cancers affect the body, causing cancerous white blood cells to multiply and inhibit the normal function of the circulatory and immune systems.

PES Speech specialist Anne Doyle announced a special project she would be undertaking during the Pennies for Patients campaign in honor of Sadako Sasaki, a Japanese girl exposed to radiation poisoning — what was known at the time as "atom bomb sickness" — during the bombing of Hiroshima.

While Sadako was undergoing treatment in the hospital, Doyle explained, her best friend brought her a crane fashioned from golden paper — viewed in Japanese culture as a symbol of hope for a long and happy life. Inspired by the gesture, Sadako dedicated the final few months of her life to making 1,000 paper cranes, but managed to complete only 644 by the time of her death in 1955.

In honor of Sadako's mission, Doyle invited the assembled students to join her in her own efforts to create 1,000 origami cranes.

In an effort to tie the launch of the Pennies for Patients fundraiser in with "Pi" Day (a national celebration of the numeric shortcut most commonly abbreviated as 3.14), math teacher Jan Panagoulis, who organized last week's assembly, challenged students in the weeks leading up to the event to memorize as many of the infinite number of digits to the right of the decimal point as they could. A donation ranging anywhere from $3.14 to $103.14 was given to the Pennies for Patients program on behalf of any student brave enough to accept the challenge, with the dollar amount increasing based on how many digits students had memorized.

Two students — a fifth grader and an eighth grader — managed to contribute the maximum dollar amount of $103.14, reciting an astounding 131 and 110 digits, respectively. A handful of their fellow students also took part in the challenge, reciting 20, 30, 40, and in one case, 75 digits.

By the time students were dismissed from the assembly, more than $325 had already been raised in support of Pennies for Patients.

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