Palm Beach Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 27, 2007
PORT ST. LUCIE — It was a simple gift, something to hold when it hurt or got a bit scary, something to rest against during and after treatment.
For Tanner Wilson, 7, the pillow with its pattern of orange flames was perfect.
For the fifth-graders who gave it to him, who don’t quite understand what’s hurting him, the pillow answered an important question: How do you help?
It was a bold idea that Jenny Clancy brought to her friend Ronda Payne one day in November.
Clancy, a kindergarten teacher at Village Green Elementary, had seen an episode of Oprah in which the talk show host gave $1,000 to everyone in her 300-person audience. The $1,000 could be donated to any charity or used as seed money to raise even more for the charity of their choice. All she asked was that they document their activities with a video camera.
Clancy, 29, wondered how children might use such a gift. Would they make even more money? Would they understand the underlying message – that to give is to receive, that kindness can be passed from one person to another like a cookie jar that never runs out – and would they apply it to their lives?
Most of all, she wondered if it was even possible.
“I went to Ronda because I was like, ‘Could we do this? Am I crazy?'” she said.
Payne, a guidance counselor at the school, assured her the idea could work.
The only question was how to pay for it.
“I said, ‘Let’s see if we can do the elementary school version of this,'” Payne said.
Payne took the idea to a friend, a former teacher who won half of an $82 million Florida Lotto jackpot last year. The teacher, who once worked at Village Green Elementary, agreed to give the school $3,000 – enough for $100 for each of the school’s 29 classrooms – as an anonymous donation.
That gave Clancy the money to start. A January staff meeting gave her the approval of her principal and fellow teachers.
All that was left was to tell the kids.
Tanner was sick almost from birth.
Fluid gathered around his heart when he was 1 month old. He developed severe nosebleeds at age 2 and seemed to be constantly bruised. He went to the hospital with viral pneumonia.
Doctors thought he might have leukemia; then they didn’t know what was wrong.
“We just could not keep this child well,” said his mother, Becky Wilson.
It was an allergist who noticed that Tanner had abnormally low antibodies. That discovery led them to Tanner’s diagnosis: The then-4-year-old boy had a rare autoimmune disorder known as hyper-IgM syndrome, more commonly referred to as the “boy in the bubble” condition.
His body could not fight germs the way most can. Without a bone marrow transplant or constant treatment, Tanner would be unlikely to live past 30.
“I looked it up, and the world sort of started spinning,” Becky Wilson said.
Clancy asked the teachers at Village Green to let their classes pick the charities. She wanted them to find something that interested them, that felt like theirs.
“I thought, ‘How do we make this the kids’ project?'” she said.
All of Village Green’s classes chose to use the seed money to raise even more for charity. They dubbed the project Pay It Forward, reminiscent of the 2000 movie featuring the same concept.
Each class chose a charity: Special Olympics, Make-A-Wish Foundation, Humane Society, Gertrude Walden Day Care Center, American Heart Association, Dogs & Cats Forever and many others.
Some classes chose their charities after meeting someone like them – someone young but also sick, whose presence made diseases with long, unpronounceable names seem more real, more everyday.
Someone like Tanner Wilson. Someone like Cassidy Taylor.
Clancy’s kindergartners joined with the second-graders in Jeannette Craft’s class to raise money for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. They picked the charity after a visit from Lisa Taylor, a teacher at Manatee Elementary, and her daughter, Cassidy.
Cassidy, 4, has cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that affects the lungs and digestive system. The condition can cause frequent lung infections and make it difficult to breathe. People with cystic fibrosis often do not live to into their 30s and 40s.
For the students in Clancy’s class, Cassidy was just another child. She walked into their classroom, put on an apron and started playing, Clancy said. She twirled around, blond hair flying, and won them over.
She just happened to have a terrible illness – one that the children referred to as “65 roses” because cystic fibrosis is too hard to pronounce.
“She was little; they could relate to her,” Clancy said. “They fell in love with her. They really did.”
Tanner, a first-grader at Village Green, was busy raising money for his class when he found out that students in two classes were raising money because of him.
One of those classes, Cat Crimley’s fifth-grade group, was making pillows to sell. The boy spotted one – black with orange flames – and knew it had to be his. It was boyish, he thought, and orange is his favorite color.
He had seen other people use such pillows, often called comfort pillows, during chemotherapy and other medical treatments.
Tanner, who gets intravenous medication at home every 21 days, knew just what to do with his.
“It goes under your arm,” he said.
The treatments are not painful, except for the initial sting of the IV’s insertion, but they prevent him from moving around for almost four hours as his body is pumped full of gamma globulin, a derivative of blood that has antibodies to help ward off infection.
During treatment, Tanner usually lies on the couch with a pillow behind his head, one under his arm and a bag of Cheetos in his lap. Sometimes he naps; most often he watches movies.
His nurse suggested that he rest the hand with the IV against something during his treatments so it wouldn’t get tugged or jostled.
The pillow would be the perfect place; the flames would give him a jolt of courage before the IV stick.
The teachers at Village Green still are unsure when it happened.
Sometime during the school year, in the midst of taking the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and doing all of the schoolwork that kids do, students at Village Green began to apply the lessons of the project to their lives.
Stories started trickling in.
About the boy who donated his allowance and the one who brought in his birthday money instead of buying a toy.
About the group of girls who helped one of their friends pay for school pictures when she didn’t have enough, and how that girl later loaned a friend lunch money.
About the time Clancy’s class donated the money it raised that week to another class to help it meet its fund-raising goal, and how that class later gave the cookies it won to Clancy’s students.
About Kaitlyn Hulka, 7, who woke up before her family one Saturday and set up an iced tea stand to raise money for Cats & Dogs Forever. She raised $27 and coaxed her older brother and neighborhood kids into helping.
About Anthony St. John, 6, who sold some of his prized model cars to raise money for cystic fibrosis.
“It was hard,” he said. “I did it for Cassidy.”
One by one, students at Village Green Elementary found a way to give.
They gave possessions, those small toys that can mean so much to a child. They gave of themselves, with time and effort. They gave and gave until they had given more than $11,000 to charity – $8,000 more than what they had been given to start the program.
“I thought it would be very helpful and kind,” said Cassidy O’Brien, a fifth-grader at the school. “I think that you should help people. One day if you need help, people will make a fund-raiser for you.”
For Tanner, his black-and-orange pillow reminds him of the fifth-graders who decided to do something nice for him, something to help. It is also a reminder to help others.
He has made care packages for other sick people, knowing from experience that cookies, crackers and ginger ale are nice to have when you’re in the hospital.
And he bought a pillow for a family friend who had cancer, hoping it would be a comfort to him during chemotherapy. Sadly, his friend, Dave Gessner, died before the pillow – patterned with fish from the Finding Nemo movie – could be delivered.
But Tanner learned what Clancy had so hoped that children would discover during the Pay It Forward project.
“He had to get IVs, too, so I thought it would make him feel better,” Tanner said of Dave. “Our friends gave me stuff, so I gave him stuff, and that’s why we do it.”