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Friday was Austin’s last day of preschool. Ever. So, of course, here’s the obligatory playground photo, along with his previous two Last Day photos:

It’s bittersweet to leave St. Paul’s since it’s been such a major part of our lives for the past six years.  Braedan’s first official day of preschool (after a good two weeks of orientation) was September 21, 2006 … the day Austin was born! So, from that moment to this moment and for every insane moment in between, we’ve been members of that school family. It has spanned all of Austin’s life so far and hopefully the entirety of his cancer, start to finish. It was only fitting that he ended two days after being declared officially and most definitely cancer-free.

As I think back over these past few weeks, I am awed, as I have been so many times before, by the kindness and intense emotional investment of all of you. Your tears and your hugs, the very thoughtful gifts (the dragon-slaying StoryPeople print from the Sweeneys and the key chain featuring my double rainbow image from Becky being my top favorites), your messages of hope and sadness, faith and joy, sustained us through this otherwise heartbreaking experience.

Knowing that you’re out there and that you care so deeply about us, about my child whom some of you have never met, means an enormous amount. I regret that I am never able to properly thank you, but know that I feel you and am fully aware of you. I read the name of each “Like” on my Facebook updates with gratitude and satisfaction (and sometimes surprise). In fact, as Mark and I sat out on the porch last Wednesday with our champagne, we both had buzzing phones in our laps, constantly updating one another with the latest messages of love and relief.

I loved that my brother told me that every time he went anywhere on Thursday or Friday, he was greeted with high fives and hugs, random people congratulating him on his nephew’s good health and even shouting it from the side of the road as he drove past. This has been such a community saga in so many ways, as you’ve followed along beside us for all these years, crying with us, wishing with us, celebrating with us.

(And speaking of celebrating with us, we are going to finally throw a big-ass party and everyone is invited. But we must gather our strength first!)

This round, if you can call it that, was interesting because it was the only time in all of our years of cancer that I felt like it was truly unfair, the first time I ever felt like, “Why me? Why us?” I know it sounds crazy that I hadn’t ever said that before, but — as much as I hate childhood cancer and as much as I’ve raged against its presence in our lives — I also know that it exists and someone has to get it. Someone has to hear those dreaded words, “Your child has cancer.” So I always sort of figured, “Why not me?” I saw no reason I should be exempt from being dealt such a hand. I’ve been given so much, am fortunate in so many ways … why shouldn’t this be my thing?

But this last time, I finally felt this just isn’t fair. We have done it. We fought, hard, and we succeeded. Austin does not, did not, deserve to have to fight this battle yet again. It would have been too much. It would have been, for the first time, completely unfair.

As my brother said, it just felt (for lack of a better term) karmically wrong. Like it just shouldn’t be. And, of course, lucky us, it wasn’t. It isn’t.

At the Family Connections benefit a few weeks ago, right in the midst of our darkest days, a friend told me that I so deserve to have the universe treat me with kindness. Of course, we know that the universe just doesn’t work that way. Bad things happen to good people (and good things happen to bad people). And suffering is not fairly or evenly distributed. But I agreed with her. I really believed at that moment (and in this moment) that the universe should treat me kindly. That I deserved it.

And most of all, more than anything, that this boy deserved it:

And this (toothless) one too:

The transition from Thanksgiving to Christmas seems to get shorter and quicker every year. So now that we’ve all moved on to the next big thing, it’s time to think about giving.  Every year, I encourage my kids, with limited success, to weed out their toys to make room for the inevitable mass of new ones. And this year, we have lots of good options for what to do with all their extra stuff.

First (and this one is just brilliant), The Smead Discovery Center at the Natural History Museum is accepting broken plastic toys — yes, that’s right, all those tiny broken pieces that have no home or game parts with no game, the junk that clutters up the bottom of toy baskets and drawers in every room in the house.  They’ll take it all, more than just the action figure parts they accepted in the past, as long as it’s smaller than 12 by 6 by 6 inches. They then send them to the Toy Lab in Cincinnati where kids make them into new toys in an arts and science lab (how cool is that?).  But they’re only accepting donations through November 30, so get busy.

Next, two lovely organizations with which I’m affiliated are having toy sales next week.  Both Family Connections, where I sit on the board, and St Paul’s Coop, where Austin attends preschool, will be collecting new and gently used toys and baby gear over the next week.  Check out their respective websites for all the necessary details: Family Connections and St. Paul’s.

And finally, the one I am most excited about: Go Public! Great Schools Are Everybody’s Business, which is a grassroots movement to foster stronger ties between Cleveland Heights-University Heights community and the public schools, is having a learning material toy drive.  The motivating idea behind this is that children can’t learn if they don’t know how to play and they can’t play if they don’t have the right toys.  As I’ve mentioned,  a significant percentage of the students in CHUH schools live in poverty and I’m certain that few of them have appropriately educational toys in their homes.  I’m not talking just about flashcards here, but books and puzzles, legos and building blocks, art supplies and board games, anything that requires imagination or creativity.

The counselors at each of our seven elementary schools will identify the 10 to 20 neediest families in each school, who will then receive a box of gently used and/or new toys to take home before the holiday break. If you have anything to share, please consider this opportunity as it has an immediate positive impact on the identified students and their entire families. For those of you who think your materials would be too young for elementary students, everything will be sorted into age categories, including pre-K and K, which will be hugely beneficial for the younger siblings in our students’ homes.

There will be collection boxes at all seven elementary schools and Coventry from Monday December 5 through Friday, December 16.  I spent hours and hours today going through all the various baskets and containers that store toys (and bits of broken plastic) in our mudroom, living room, both boys’ rooms, and the third floor playroom. I weeded, sorted, repaired, repackaged and boxed up a storm.

It was much-needed and very satisfying and, most importantly, can truly make a difference to a child in need.

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