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‘I want her to know she’s not alone’

Sixth-grade cellist organizes concert supporting teacher battling cancer

Byron Center — Sitting in his kitchen after school, Nickels Intermediate sixth-grader Cameron Renshaw recalled his favorite memory of his first grade teacher at Marshall Elementary, Sierra Zylstra.

“She was so, so nice and she was really an amazing teacher,” he said. “At the end of school, she always asked everyone if they wanted a hug or high-five and remembered everyone’s preferences. I am a hugger.”

Sixth-grader Cameron Renshaw, pictured with his cello, is hosting a benefit concert for his former teacher, Sierra Zylstra, who is battling bone cancer (courtesy)

Zylstra was also the first teacher who noticed and supported his talent for cello at school, he said: “I felt like a celebrity in her class when she played videos of me playing the cello.” 

After finding out one of his favorite teachers had cancer, Cameron wanted to help in some way. 

“I heard she had been diagnosed with a really bad cancer and I was thinking to myself, ‘How can I help her; what am I good at? Cello!’” said Cameron, who has gone on to become an internationally known cellist. “I can host a concert and I can raise money for her treatments.”

With help from his mom, Tina, and his friends, Cameron organized the Team Z Benefit Concert, happening at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 4, at Wealthy Theatre in Grand Rapids. Tickets can be purchased online and all proceeds will support Zylstra’s cancer battle. 

Sierra Zylstra, a former Marshall Elementary first grade teacher, said she feels extremely blessed by the Byron Center community rallying behind her as she battles bone cancer (courtesy)

Team Z

Zylstra was diagnosed with metastatic osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer, in February 2021. It started in her knee and metastasized, or spread, to both her lungs, which will require treatment for the rest of her life, she explained. 

Even after leaving the classroom to battle her illness, Zylstra’s former students and colleagues rallied to support her.

Former Marshall Elementary teacher Sierra Zylstra, left, visited her former student Cameron Renshaw’s concert at GVSU (courtesy)

“I called our class at Marshall ‘Team Z.’ As a team, we supported each other, and after my diagnosis, my colleagues took that and made it into a T-shirt fundraiser,” Zylstra said. “When I see people wearing those shirts, I feel so loved and supported.”

Cameron was in Zylstra’s class during her first year of teaching in 2017. Two other students from that class, Myles Mix and Brylee DeMaagd, are assisting with the concert by serving as emcee and making and selling handmade bracelets and keychains to help raise money, respectively. 

“You never forgot your first class,” Zylstra said. “As soon as I met (Cameron), I knew he was different from other students. He had a very mature curiosity and zest for life, like everything I taught him was the best thing he’s heard.”

She added: “Not only is he talented, he also has the kindest heart.”

Planting Seeds of Hope 

A cellist since age 5, Cameron has played cello at Carnegie Hall six times and appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. He has also won prestigious music competitions, traveling to perform in countries including Russia, Austria and the Netherlands.

Cameron’s benefit concert for Zylstra will feature several student performers including Cameron’s brother, Parker.

“I really like Metallica and so does Mrs. Zylstra, so I’m playing some Metallica songs and Led Zeppelin,” Cameron said. “I wanted to add diverse music to the concert.”

He said he hopes the event will encourage his former teacher to keep going and keep fighting her cancer. 

“Every concert encourages me to practice my heart out so I can blow everyone away, except this time Mrs. Zylstra is going to be there so I want to practice extra hard,” Cameron said. 

“I want her to know she’s not alone and for other people to learn her story. I hope this event plants the seed and other events sprout up and inspire more people to donate.”

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter covering Byron Center, Caledonia, Godfrey-Lee, Kenowa Hills and Thornapple Kellogg. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News, covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry, before finding her calling in education reporting and landing at SNN. Alexis is also the author of a poetry chapbook, “Learning to Sleep in the Middle of the Bed.”


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