Vickroy: Students + compassion = $1,115
DONNA VICKROY email@example.com | (708) 633-5982 June 1, 2012 7:02PM
Teacher Kellie Ferconio looks on as her fourth grade class plays a math problem game at Liberty School in Orland Park, Illinois, Tuesday, May 29, 2012. Her students are working math problems to help raise money to send her to Houston for cancer treatments. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
Liberty School is at 8801 W. 151st St., Orland Park; (708) 364-3800.
For more information on colon cancer, visit www.cancer.org/Cancer/Colon
Updated: July 6, 2012 8:42AM
Kellie Ferconio has colon cancer.
That’s the worst of it.
The best of it is that she also has a fabulous reason to get up every morning, to keep going, to fight her disease with every ounce of her body.
“I really love teaching,” she said. “These guys are my world.”
Ferconio has taught fourth grade at Liberty School in Orland Park for eight years now. For four of those years, she’s battled for her life.
Each time she finds herself bracing for another surgery or another round of chemotherapy, it is her students who, without even knowing it, pull her through.
“You’d think these kids would cut me some slack, but they don’t,” she said, laughing. “I take that as a good sign, that they know I’m strong.”
Her students may not be able to help their fourth-grader ways — the giggling, the squirming, the busting out of their seats — but they often display very mature levels of compassion when it comes to their teacher’s health.
Over the past two weeks, 50 of the 9- and 10-year-olds have worked extra math problems in their free time, not for extra credit but to raise travel fare for Ferconio, who will head again to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for another surgery this summer.
It’s 1,115 miles from Orland Park to Houston. When trying to come up with a creative way to help Ferconio pay for airfare and car rental, someone had the idea to have students work math problems, earning $1 for each finished equation via pledges, mostly from parents.
Math for Miles was born. Several of the students, including Danielle Bornstein, finished all 1,115 problems in the packet.
Danielle, 9, really likes math, especially multiplication. She did all 1,115 problems in a single day.
Nick Sweeney, 10, admits he did the minimum, just 10 of the problems.
But he, Kevin Carroll and Tommy St. John helped in other ways. They cut out blue ribbons, the designated color for colon cancer. Tommy also designed a T-shirt that each participant will receive.
Tommy said his mom told him about his teacher’s cancer before Ferconio shared the news with her class.
“She has to go to Houston and that’s a lot of miles,” Tommy said. “Helping her out kind of takes the sadness away.”
Ferconio, who has two grown children, has been very open and honest about her health, even if all the attention is a bit humbling.
Before she told her students, Ferconio consulted with some of their moms. All agreed she should be honest and up front.
“What I liked most about the fundraiser was that it provided two lessons: some very important practice of math facts and an exercise in being helpful, showing compassion,” Ferconio said. “I want these kids to treat each other with kindness and respect. That’s just as important as academics.”
Alison Lacny, Tommy St. John’s mom, said the campaign shone a light on the school community’s spirit of caring.
“This community is tight,” Lacny said. “We help each other, care about each other. It’s important for our kids to see us doing that.”
Ferconio, 49, did not have any symptoms when she opted to have a colonoscopy four years ago. Her father and her grandfather had colon cancer. So even though doctors recommended she have the test done at 50, she chose to have it done at 45.
“If I had waited until 50, well, I’d be dead now,” she said.
Since then she has endured surgeries, many rounds of chemo and an experimental treatment called, euphemistically, “shake and bake.”
Despite all the treatment, she has missed very little class time.
“It was important to me to be able to show the kids that you can go through chemo and still be happy and that life still goes on,” she said.
Ferconio advises anyone, regardless of their age, who has a family history of colon cancer or who experiences any of the symptoms to get tested. According to the Mayo Clinic, signs include a change in bowel habits, rectal bleeding or blood in the stool, persistent abdominal discomfort and weakness or fatigue.
“It’s the second-leading cause of (cancer) death after lung cancer, and the most preventable,” she said.