Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Quilt of Courage Honors Parents of Cancer

Laurel and her father, Mike, share a moment following the unveiling of the Quilt of Courage

One by one they came to her office to seek comfort, solace, a reassurance that they would make it through one of the most difficult times in their young lives. In a short span of time, 13 students from various grade levels came to talk to Rising Starr Middle School Counselor Janice McLeroy about their same situation; all had parents who were battling cancer.

Helping students cope with their parents’ illnesses was not new to McLeroy; she had listened and talked to students dealing with these issues many times. But in all of her years as a counselor, she had never had this many dealing with cancer at one time.

“I was overwhelmed. Usually I have one or two but I have never had this many in one year. As the list continued to grow, I became very burdened thinking about what I could do to help them.”

McLeroy knew her office was a safe haven for the students, a place where they could escape and not talk about cancer. She knew a traditional support group was out of the question. Instead, the students needed an activity that would be meaningful and help them channel their emotions.

“I saw a car commercial on TV where the dealer was raffling a quilt to benefit breast cancer. Then the idea hit me,” said McLeroy.

From the commercial came the Quilt of Courage, a 5 X 7 foot quilt created by the students to honor and memorialize their parents who are battling or who have battled cancer.

Meeting after school, each student designed a square that represented his or her parent. PTO volunteers Cynthia Crew, Lynda Montgomery and Fiona Dennis helped the students with the design and sewing of the quilt. It features a total of 48 squares, each tied with ribbon so that future students of parents with cancer can add to it if they wish.

Each completed square has a colored ribbon that corresponds to the type of cancer battled: pink, breast cancer (7 squares); purple, pancreatic cancer (2 squares); light blue, prostate cancer (one square); gray, brain cancer (one square); orange, leukemia (one square). The squares represent two fathers and 10 mothers.

An unveiling ceremony was held outside of the media center on May 19 where the quilt is on permanent display. A total of 12 families were in attendance.

“This quilt is to honor you and the hard work and courage you have done and shown. I told your children that today would be filled with emotions, some happy, some sad. It is OK to cry, it is OK to laugh; this is a journey and we are in it together with you,” McLeroy told the guests.

Before the unveiling, the students conducted a silent presentation with each holding a card with a word on one side representing an aspect of cancer and their own definition of what the word meant to them on the other side. Laurel Jenkins, who lost her mother to breast cancer in February, carried the word “Strength” with the definition “To stay standing when life tries to knock you down.” Austin Smith, who lost his mother in October 2008 to pancreatic cancer, chose the word “Sacrifice” and defined it as “Giving up something for something that is more important.”

A pin drop could have been heard as Laurel and Austin, who have been friends since elementary school, unveiled the quilt. The parents stood still, looking on until Principal Len Patton, a breast cancer survivor whose grandchildren designed a square for her, gently encouraged them to go to the quilt and find their square.

“I considered it a privlidge for me to sit with these students in their pain. I probably learned more from them than they from me. When tragedy strikes such as this, the parents are busy taking care of the situation: changes in finances, household chores and routines, medical appointments, meals, etc. that so often the emotional needs of the students go unobserved. Life passes by so quickly while we just do life. This was simply my way of helping the families,” McLeroy said as she reflected on the unprecedented year she and the students had encountered.

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