Anna Organek stood before an auditorium full of her fellow Lowell High School students, describing what it was like to endure cancer as a child.
“It made me and my family live every day to the fullest, and brought us closer,” said the petite junior, who was diagnosed at age 7 with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
Nearby sat three other students and a teacher who have survived cancer. All wore pink T-shirts signifying Pink Arrow Pride, an annual fundraiser that has transformed Lowell into a community of compassion for cancer patients and their families. Football players’ pink jerseys, and about 9,000 T-shirts bought by students and residents, bear the names of loved ones who have survived cancer or succumbed to it.
At assemblies preceding the sixth annual event last Friday, Anna and other survivors described their ordeals of treatment — but also the gifts that came from their journeys with cancer.
“I’m a better person for it,” said senior Nick Hess, whose shirt bore the name of his late childhood babysitter. “I’m more confident. I’m not as afraid as I was.”
English teacher Kristin Schutte choked up as she described undergoing a double mastectomy for breast cancer a year and a half ago, and the overwhelming love she was shown by fellow teachers and the community.
“Cancer brings people together,” Schutte said. “This is a lesson all of us have learned.” Thousands have learned that lesson through Pink Arrow Pride, in Lowell and far beyond.
A community comes together
It started as one coach’s modest idea while watching an NFL game on TV: have the Red Arrows football team wear pink jerseys as a fundraiser.
Six years later, Lowell has raised $837,000 to help families of cancer patients, start a Gilda’s Club chapter and fund college scholarships for Lowell grads.
Football coach Noel Dean looks back on the process with something like awe. He says he thought they would raise maybe $15,000 the first year. After they brought in $93,000, Dean says, “We knew we had something really special.”
Indeed. Last year’s event raised $80,000 for Gilda’s Club of Lowell and $35,000 to assist 80 families. Pink Arrow Pride has been featured on the “Today” show and emulated by other communities around Michigan and beyond.
The reason for the program’s astonishing success is pretty simple, says Teresa Beachum, lead organizer of a volunteer army: “Everyone knows someone who has walked the cancer journey.”
That includes Beachum, a Lowell native. Her brother collapsed on the football field with lung cancer in high school and then died at 33. Noel Dean’s father-in-law died of cancer. Both men were remembered on players’ jerseys Friday night.
At game’s end, players present their jerseys to the person whose names they wear or a loved one of that person. When that happened the first year, Dean says, he saw the power of the event. “I just stood on that field, and I wanted to listen to every family. I wanted to listen to every story.”
Permission to share and heal
The stories told by those living with cancer have brought this close-knit community even closer, offering a kind of therapy of neighborly love, Beachum says.
“We made it all right to talk about your diagnosis,” she says. “Come out, because the support you’re going to get from the community is going to help you heal.”
By renovating a farmhouse to house Gilda’s Club, the project’s provided patients a place of support and fellowship. Gilda’s staffers also provide grief counseling for students at school and programs to help fifth-graders deal with challenges.
For football players and other athletes, Pink Arrow has fostered empathy and compassion, Dean says. “It allows them a chance to understand some things at a very young agethat other people don’t get to. It helps them become better people.”
For students and adults living with cancer, it helps to see the support of a whole community — complete with a parade and fireworks.
Last year, sophomore Dani Knight got to ride in a helicopter over the football field as students formed the shape of an arrow. “It was soo cool,” she recalls with a grin.
At the high school assembly before Friday’s game, students hug Dani and the others who spoke of their cancer journeys. It is a kind of quiet pep rally, punctuated by laughter and tears, and infused with courage.
“If you see us,” Anna Organek tells the assembly, “I hope you have learned that this is what hope looks like.”