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Embracing through the bond of Kisses for Catie 5K
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Runners celebrate as they near the finish line in the second annual Kisses for Catie 5K. - photo by Photo by Paul Floeckher

A common bond connects three women who teach on the same wing at Marlow Elementary School. They each have experienced one of their own children battling cancer.

Two of the children have survived, while the other died at just 4 years old. Saturday’s second annual Kisses for Catie 5K run/walk was for children like them.

The fundraiser is named for Catie Wilkins, the first-born child of MES teacher Jenny Wilkins and her husband Tre’. Catie was diagnosed at the age of 1 with an aggressive brain tumor and fought through chemotherapy, radiation and 12 surgeries before losing her cancer battle shortly before her fifth birthday.

“It is about Catie’s memory, but it’s also about all these kids who are fighting now,” Jenny Wilkins said. “The money raised funds research, so that those kids live.”

The 5K hosted by South Effingham High School raised $2,301 toward finding cures for childhood cancers, according to Wilkins. The proceeds will be given to Catie’s Fund within the CURE Childhood Cancer organization.

Nolan Dasher, a sophomore at SEHS and friend of the Wilkins family, came up with the idea for the Kisses for Catie 5K. He plans and coordinates the fundraiser, with help from his fellow student council members, and the school’s future health professionals organization HOSA also came on board as a sponsor this year.

“Miss Jenny was looking for another fundraiser to do, and I said, ‘I’ll do it,’” Dasher said.

“That’s just awesome that he has taken it upon himself to work so hard, and to see kids making a difference is just really cool,” Wilkins said. “People always come up and go, ‘I’m looking forward to your event on Saturday,’ and I say, ‘That isn’t my event. That’s Nolan’s event that he does for us.’”

Battling together
The first-grade hall at Marlow Elementary has a built-in support network for parents of cancer patients. Along with Wilkins, teachers Wendy McDonald and Jennifer Lyerly have been through their children’s battles with the disease.

“All the moms teach on the same hallway. It’s pretty remarkable,” Wilkins said.

Lyerly’s daughter Katrina, a senior at South Effingham High, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at age 15. She is in remission after having her thyroid and all her lymph nodes removed.

McDonald’s 9-year-old son Austin battled Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. This week he is celebrating a year of being cancer-free, according to his mom.

Austin underwent chemotherapy and radiation at age 8 after doctors found a tumor pushing against his spine.

“He had to have two rods put in his back because the tumor pushed his spine over and it started growing crooked,” McDonald explained.

On the night Austin’s cancer was discovered, his mom said, the family was sent straight to Children’s at Scottish Rite in Atlanta. Wendy rode with Austin in Scottish Rite’s helicopter while her husband Bill drove to meet them at the hospital.

“We didn’t even have time to think what was going on,” McDonald said. “It was a nightmare. It was just, ‘Wake me up.’”

‘The best day’
Since he’s just a sophomore, Dasher can organize the 5K for two more years before he graduates. Now that this year’s fundraiser is in the books, he’ll start planning the third annual Kisses for Catie.

All the effort that goes into the event can be challenging at times, he said, but the results are worth it.

“This is the best day,” Dasher said. “I think about all the other days we put in this hard work, and I think, ‘Why would I want to do this?’ And then you see the looks on everybody’s faces — Miss Jenny’s, Miss McDonald’s, everybody’s — and that is the reason I do it.”

Wilkins was pregnant when Catie died in 2007. Daughter Izzy and son Chip joined her Saturday in the 5K named in honor of the sister they never knew.

“We will miss her until the day we die,” Wilkins said. “Everything in life that’s sweet has a little bit of bittersweet to it.”

Nonetheless, the Wilkins family has managed to turn their loss into a positive. Through their experience, they have met other families dealing with childhood cancer.

A favorite event of Jenny’s is Sisters on a Journey, an annual ladies’ dinner and raffle to raise money for Catie’s Fund. The Sisters on a Journey fundraiser in Savannah was held last weekend, and the sold-out one in Effingham will be this Saturday.

“How amazing that God could take the worst event of our lives and turn it into something that we enjoy doing,” Wilkins said. “We wouldn’t do that dinner if we hadn’t lost her. We just find such joy in watching the community come together to make a difference.”