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LIVE COVERAGE

After 11 years and five students with cystic fibrosis, Elkridge Elementary holds last fundraiser to help fight disease

Nobody can tell Elkridge Elementary School staff that lightning doesn't strike five times in the same place.

During the annual fundraiser last week to honor children at the school with cystic fibrosis, three of whom had coincidentally enrolled as kindergartners in 2000, students raised money by spinning hula hoops, shooting baskets and twirling jump ropes, just as they have done since 2002.

But this year, the staff and 886 students will say good-bye to 10-year-old Joshua Bahrijczuk, the last of five courageous students to graduate from Elkridge Elementary with the life-threatening lung and digestive tract disease over the past 10 years.

With his departure, the annual fundraisers will come to an end.

"This has been such a wonderful community-based fundraising project," said parent organizer Amy Bahrijczuk of the annual Hop-Shoot-Jump-a-Thons, which have raised $99,000, including the $8,000 raised this year.

The school on Montgomery Road is concluding the targeted campaign kicked off when Joshua's sister, Jodi Bahrijczuk, who is now 16 and a junior at Howard High School, enrolled in kindergarten at the same time as Joshua Berkley and Lauren Cerwonka, whose families have since moved out of the area.

The statistical improbability of having three 5-year-olds with CF was matched by another equally unfathomable fact: Jodi and Joshua's other sibling — a sister, Jamie Bahrijczuk, who followed Jodi to Elkridge Elementary and is now a 13-year-old student at Elkridge Landing Middle School — also has the disease.

Both girls were able to be there for their brother at this year's final fundraiser, which basically was chaos set to blaring music barely recognizable above the students' enthusiasm.

"This is just typical elementary kids' behavior," said Jodi, who, with Jamie, summoned Joshua for a quick photo to remember the day.

"It's been wonderful to work with Elkridge Elementary and it's been a good time for my kids," Amy said, noting all three have been relatively healthy for a few years with few hospital visits for lung or intestinal blockages. "I'd never even heard of cystic fibrosis until I was pregnant with my first child."

'Huge, huge news'

While CF is an inherited illness, neither Amy nor her husband, Bob, have it. But both of them do carry the defective gene that causes it, a fact uncovered through genetic testing during Amy's first pregnancy.

One in 20 people carry the gene, but most aren't aware that they do, explained Suzanne Nolan, senior development director of the Maryland chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Some 30,000 cases of CF have been diagnosed in this country, and Nolan said about 1,000 new cases are diagnosed each year.

In order to be born with cystic fibrosis a child must inherit two copies of the CF gene, one copy from each parent, Nolan said. If both parents are carriers of the CF gene, but don't have the disease themselves, their child will have a 1 in 4 chance of inheriting both defective copies and having cystic fibrosis.

In order for all three of their kids to get CF, both parents had to pass on their defective genes in each of Amy's three pregnancies, though there was a 75 percent chance each time that wouldn't happen, Nolan explained.

"With our ability to beat the odds, I always say we're going to win the lottery big one day," Amy said with a laugh, relying on humor to relieve the stress of dealing with a life-threatening disease.

"I find the more optimistic Bob and I are, the healthier the kids are, so it's worked out for us that way," she said.

Today, thanks to continued research and specialized care, an increasing number of people with cystic fibrosis are living into adulthood and leading healthier lives that include careers, marriage and families of their own, according to the CFF website.

There's additional cause for hope, Amy said, with the approval of a new drug for CF patients just last month, a development she called "huge, huge news."

Kalydeco just received approval Jan. 31 from theU.S. Food and Drug Administrationfor patients who are age 6 or older and who have a specific mutation of the CF gene, according to the CFF website.

"This is the quickest the FDA has ever approved a drug, just three months after completing clinical trials," said Amy, who keeps up with the latest medical developments. Nolan verified that assessment.

"This is a really good time for CF," said Nolan. "We're so close to a cure for this thing."

Enjoying life 'full-tilt'

Joshua took a break from shooting squishy balls into a basketball hoop in the gym Feb. 16 to talk about CF.

"We're really close to our (fundraising) goal, and that's cool," he said.

He feels pretty much like any other kid, he said, and plays in basketball and lacrosse leagues. While he is treated for CF at home by wearing a special vest that relieves lung congestion and uses an inhaler and takes pills, he's used to that regimen, he said with a shrug and a smile.

Conrad Brookhart, a physical education teacher who taught all three Bahrijczuk kids and has been at the school since it opened 22 years ago, said the siblings are energetic and share a positive outlook on life.

"They have no restrictions and enjoy life full-tilt," he said.

But beyond the school's fundraising efforts to support CF, credit belongs to the people of Elkridge, he said.

"This is a close-knit community that supports one another in times of need," Brookhart said.

At the fundraisers, Brookhart and fellow gym teachers Muskee Books and Rob Abramson volunteered to take cream pies in the face in the name of charity.

One boy and one girl from each grade won the privilege of throwing aluminum foil pie plates covered in whipped cream by raising the most money through pledges, Amy said.

Another big supporter of all 11 fundraisers and the Bahrijczuk family has been Principal Diane Mumford, who has led the school since 1995.

"The three kids have been so well-loved by everyone and the fundraisers have really opened the students' eyes to the joy of helping others," she said. "There is a lot of caring and empathy in this community, which has been so generous and supportive."

Still to come is the pie-throwing assembly, during which the three PE teachers "make faces, try to dodge the pies and really ham it up," Mumford said. And Sue Meyenberg, a school paraeducator, promised students she would dye her hair purple if they reached their fundraising goal.

As for the Bahrijczuk family, whom Mumford said have left an indelible legacy at Elkridge Elementary, Amy says they'll be fine.

"I believe the kids were given the set of parents they were supposed to have, and that we're managing this together," she said. "This was meant to be and we're OK with that."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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