Relay Elementary students rally to raise $5,500 to battle cancer

Relay Elementary School started its Pennies for Patients drive Feb. 8 to benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society with hopes that its students would raise $1,200 in three weeks.

By the end of the drive on Feb. 29, the 532-student school had raised $5,500, said Denise Campbell, a guidance counselor at Relay Elementary.

"We are absolutely jaw-dropped at the outpouring of generosity, especially as hard as things are for people," said Campbell, noting that faculty and staff pitched in but most of the donations came from the students.

Those students brought in $1,500 during the drive's first week and the money, often in the form of nickels, dimes, quarters and even bills, kept flowing.

"I needed to help people less fortunate than me, even though I don't have that much money," said fifth-grader Casey Dixon.

Dixon, like many of the students at the school, also has a more personal experience with leukemia.

Barbara Cavelius, an art teacher at the school, contracted the disease in spring 2010.

Currently in her fourth year at Relay Elementary, Cavelius, now 52, missed all but the last six weeks of the 2010-2011 school year as she underwent chemotherapy.

As Cavelius endured chemotherapy treatments and made her recovery, she received 400 get-well cards from the students.

"When you have cancer, support is probably one of the most important things," Cavelius said as she held back tears. "It made me fight the cancer harder."

During her treatments, Cavelius longed to be around the students, she said, so she would occasionally attend school functions wearing a surgical mask to protect her weakened immune system.

"I think putting the personal connection to the illness contributed to why the community was so generous," said Campbell, a Catonsville resident whose father died of leukemia.

To kick off the fundraising drive at the school, Cavelius gave each of the school's 29 classes 100 pennies to start their collections.

She also made a video urging support for the drive for the students that many students viewed during the past weeks.

Near the entrance to the school on Seford Avenue is a poster with several photographs of Cavelius as she battled leukemia, including ones after she lost her hair because of the chemotherapy.

"That's what I think made a difference, is they could reach out and touch somebody," said Cavelius, a 20-year Baltimore County Public Schools teacher, including seven at Lansdowne Middle School. "It was something they could connect with. These are wonderful kids here."

By the end of the drive last week, the fifth-grade classes of Kathleen Benedick and Mary Martin had raised the most money in the school, a combined $955, and won pizza parties.

Emma Doherty, a student in Benedick's class, said she cracked open her piggy bank and asked her parents to contribute to Pennies for Patients.

Emma said the members of her class raised so much money because they want to help others and they are competitive and wanted to win a pizza party.

"Ms. Cavelius, we missed her last year," Emma said. "She does lots of cool projects, has a nice level of patience and is very understanding."

Casey Dixon, a member of the other winning fifth-grade class, brought in $10 of his own money, he said.

Though she's recovered, Cavelius noted with "cancer you got to keep looking over your shoulder for the rest of your life."

For now, she said she is proud of her students and honored they supported her throughout her recovery and beyond.

"I am thrilled they are being so supportive, because leukemia is the number one cancer found in children," Cavelius said. "I can't imagine a child going through what I went through."

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