Students at Lake Oswego Junior High School are showing what it means to be compassionate for one another.
Over the past few months, they have raised over $3,000 for physical education teacher Luke Lopez's daughter, Ava, who was diagnosed early last year with brain cancer. The students raised money in conjunction with their leadership class, an elective taught at the school by Heather Bryant, and the Portland-based nonprofit Sparrow Club.
"The whole premise of Sparrow Club is to show kids that they can make a difference in the world. No matter who you are, you can help by just giving back to those around you," said Laura Queen, a coordinator with Sparrow Club.
For every hour the students volunteered at a local charity, Sparrow Club would donate $10 to the medical needs of the child they had adopted for the fundraiser.
The partnership bloomed after Queen learned about Ava and contacted Vice Principal Alix Loeber, who she knew through prior engagements.
"I told her, 'You have this amazing opportunity to have your kids give back to one of your own staff member's kids," Queen said. "And if LOJ and the Lopez family are up for this, the experience can be so powerful for everyone."
At first, Lopez said he was hesitant about the fundraising opportunity due to the "heaviness" lingering for the family from the past year.
In late May 2021, Ava couldn't keep up with her family while out running errands, and Lopez and his wife noticed she was limping when she walked. The next day they took her to the hospital, where doctors performed a CT scan.
A tumor the size of a grape was found in Ava's brain.
The then-4-year-old was transferred to Randall Children's Hospital, where her journey began with a series of MRIs, steroids, surgical biopsies and chemotherapy. She was then officially diagnosed with astrocytoma, a low-grade glioma most common in children.
However, despite multiple rounds of chemotherapy, the tumor started to grow, and she developed hydrocephalus around her brain — which required surgery to relieve the pressure and remove the cancer. Ava endured a 16-hour operation, where the doctors removed 99.9% of the tumor. She will continue to be monitored long term.
"At first I was hesitant … but also very grateful that the school would want to do something like that," Lopez said.
He added that seeing his students raise money for his family was "humbling."
"I'm usually the one to help (the students), so to have that flipped was humbling and a new experience. I've been at LOJ for 15 years, and having kids come to me and ask how I'm doing, telling me that they volunteered this weekend for Ava — it was mind blowing and emotional. But they are just awesome kids," he said.
Over 100 middle schoolers participated in the fundraiser and volunteered about 340 hours at local organizations like the Oregon Humane Society, Hunger Fighters, Meals on Wheels and the Oregon Food Bank.
"I thought it was a good idea and something innovative that certainly has not been done before. It felt good as well because you're doing service for the community and helping others while also helping one of your own teachers," said eighth grader Aditi Gunasekar. She volunteered with Luscher Farms and a local pet shelter and also did work with her Girl Scout troop.
With every hour they earned, the students would write a note to Ava with encouraging messages. Lopez and his wife read a few of the notes to Ava every day.
Seventh grader Jameson Foley said the experience taught him more about compassion, and he felt good helping out a teacher who'd assisted him in the past.
"I started this debate and sports club in the sixth grade, and Mr. Lopez was the first person to help me out and teach it. And so when I heard that his daughter was going through a hard stage in life, I just really wanted to help out," Jameson said.
Jameson recently customized the dogtag that he wears for all his basketball games to say "Ava" on the back.
The fundraiser also reinforced the importance of community for those involved.
Lopez said the school has been supportive of his family since the beginning of Ava's diagnosis. Last summer, Lopez and his wife spent most of their time with their daughter at the hospital. Staff members delivered home-cooked meals for his other two children, who were being watched by family members.
"I've been a part of this community for 15 years. This was my first job as a teacher, so I've always loved this community and know the support that they have for one another. But this just gave me a whole new level and personalized it. It was really touching to have the community surround us during that time and afterward," Lopez said.
On Friday, June 3, almost the entire LOJ school flocked to the high school for the official Sparrow Club assembly, where they presented their fundraising total and notes of encouragement they had been writing to Ava since December. Ava attended and met the school community that had banded together in her honor.
"After the pandemic, building community is the No. 1 priority so that we all remember why we're here and what we're doing. And so with this whole experience, the students obviously gave to Ava, but we also gave something to ourselves because we built that community around her and with each other," said leadership teacher Heather Bryant.
The students encourage other Lake Oswego youth to help out community members — even if they don't have connections to them personally like they have with Ava.
"This experience has been really rewarding to help others and to learn that no matter who you are, empathy is really important, and you should always be compassionate to others," Aditi said. "At the end of the day, we are all humans and have hearts. If you can help out someone, why not do it?"
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