Students collect Pennies for Patients

Brielle Bredsten / Mille Lacs County Times Each elementary teacher has a container in their classrooms where the coins are collected for Pennies for Patients, a national campaign raising money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Children on the Student Leadership Team gather the donations, which are deposited at First National Bank of Milaca in return for a cashier’s check written out to Pennies for Patients.
Brielle Bredsten / Mille Lacs County Times
Each elementary teacher has a container in their classrooms where the coins are collected for Pennies for Patients, a national campaign raising money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Children on the Student Leadership Team gather the donations, which are deposited at First National Bank of Milaca in return for a cashier’s check written out to Pennies for Patients.

February is certainly an eventful time for Milaca Elementary School. I Love to Read Month is in full swing, and the students are also collecting donations for Pennies for Patients in recognition of national Cancer Prevention Month. A pep rally kicked off the festivities on Jan. 30, when Principal Steve Voshell and Assistant Principal Jeff Meyer challenged elementary school students and staff to raise $2,500 for Pennies for Patients.
“We just tell them if you can raise the goal, Mr. Voshell and I will do something goofy. They just love it,” Meyer said.
Since 1994, students across the country have collected change for the Pennies for Patients campaign, benefiting the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. The LLS has a mission to find cures and fund treatments and therapies for blood cancer patients. Through the program, students experience what it is like to work together to make a difference in the lives of children and adults fighting the disease.
“I think it is a good way to teach citizenship to kids, to know that the money is going to kids that are going through a difficult time,” Meyer said.
Each year, the elementary school principals will undergo some type of humiliation in the name of the cause if students reach the fundraising goal. One year, the assistant principal shaved his head. Another year, Meyer and Voshell camped out on the roof of the school during a school night. They’ve also had to eat sardines soaked in hot sauce. The principals have been slimed, made into ice cream sundaes … you name it. The biggest challenge for Meyer and Voshell is coming up with new and original ideas each year.
Two local Pennies for Patients heroes, Luke and Molly Williams, are invited to appear as special guests in the concluding pep rally to reward the students for all their hard work. Siblings Luke (fourth grade) and Molly (first grade), of Foreston, are both pediatric cancer survivors of Myleodysplastic Syndrome/Monosomy 7. This is the Williams family’s fourth year of involvement with Pennies for Patients.
“Learning your child has cancer is devastating. Hearing it twice is worse,” said Julie Williams, Luke and Molly’s mother.
As an infant, Luke was hospitalized with respiratory syncytial virus in April 2006. A week later, Luke ran a high fever. After some blood tests to see why the 8.5-month-old baby boy’s blood counts were so low, it was determined he had the rare cancer.
Luke underwent chemotherapy and the long bone marrow transplant process. Julie and her husband, Brandon Williams, stayed at the Ronald McDonald House in Minneapolis for five months to be close to the hospital where Luke lived for approximately 70 days. During the year following Luke’s transplant, he had many daily and weekly visits for transfusions and check-ups. Luke’s transplant was a success.
Julie and Brandon Williams were told by doctors that this type of cancer was not genetic and it was safe for them to have more children. The couple later gave birth to their daughter, Molly.
When Molly was two years old, Julie noticed her daughter was sick often and had bruising on her legs. She had her daughter’s blood checked, confirming Julie and Brandon’s worst fear – Molly was diagnosed with the same cancer type on May 26, 2010. There are very few families that have siblings diagnosed with this cancer. The unheard-of became reality in the Williams’ household.
Molly was admitted to the University of Minnesota on July 2, 2010. After the toddler went through 10 days of chemotherapy and radiation, she received a bone marrow transplant on July 12, 2010. Molly was in inpatient at the hospital for over four weeks. The family returned to the Ronald McDonald House, where they stayed even after she was discharged so they could make daily clinic visits for Molly’s transfusions and check-ups.
The children’s parents have agreed to further testing to see whether there is a genetic link or gene that causes the stem cells to grow abnormally. Both Luke and Molly will have annual check-ups for the rest of their lives to ensure they are cancer free.
Julie explained that the cancer doesn’t go into remission, but the further out a patient makes it, the less likely it will return.
“They are considered cancer free. They both deal with the aftereffects of treatment. They both are immune-suppressed. We see a lot of specialists that follow them. It’s their new normal. It’s all they’ve ever known,” Julie Williams said. “You find your new normal and go with it. You create memories out of the smaller things. You find things that don’t involve hospital stays and clinic visits.”
By looking at Luke and Molly’s lives now, you wouldn’t be able to tell that they are cancer survivors, Julie said. Luke is active in the outdoors. He loves archery, snowmobiling and four-wheeling. Molly is very outgoing and has a passion for singing and dancing. Both children are involved with the youth group at New Life Church of Princeton. As a family, the Williams enjoy going on camping trips and swimming in their pool during the summer.
“We let them try new things and be involved in activities and help form friendships for them,” Julie Williams said.
A lot of students at Milaca Elementary have gotten to know Luke and Molly through their involvement with the Pennies for Patients campaign. The school will wrap up February’s activities with a pep rally at the end of the challenge at 2 p.m. March 5.
The grade that earns the most funds will be awarded with extra recess time once the weather warms up. The kids know that if they meet the principal’s challenge, the reward will have something to do with pie, Meyer hinted.