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Toddler serves as inspiration for parents, annual fundraiser at Learning Treehouse
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The fundraiser to help find a cure for childhood cancer was in honor of 20-month-old Ella Grace Tebeau, who was in attendance with her mom Ashlyn. - photo by Photo by Paul Floeckher

Life seemed perfect for Timothy and Ashlyn Tebeau on Nov. 19, 2012.

Ashlyn gave birth to the couple’s first child, Ella Grace, that afternoon. But their joy turned to shock after their newborn underwent a few routine tests at the hospital.

“The first thing the doctor said to us is, ‘Hi, I’m the doctor, and we think your child has leukemia,’” Ashlyn recalled.

“I’m thinking, ‘You have the wrong room,’” she said. “That was my first thought, because my child was just fine when I had her.”

In her first 20 months of life, Ella Grace has received four chemotherapy treatments, been diagnosed with Down syndrome, had open-heart surgery and undergone a procedure to replace all the blood in her body with new blood, according to her mother.

The preschool and daycare Ella Grace attends honored her Friday at its fundraiser for the fight against childhood cancer. The Learning Treehouse in Rincon hosted its fifth annual Alex’s Lemonade Stand, named for a young cancer patient in Connecticut who founded the nationwide campaign.

“We’re constantly thinking about Ella Grace and how she’s doing,” said Learning Treehouse director Jana Fox. “When we started thinking about the lemonade stand this year, one of the first things that came to our mind was to do it in her honor.”

For three-and-a-half hours, Learning Treehouse students accepted donations for lemonade, frozen lemonade and baked goods. In-person and online contributions raised $1,500 for the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation’s mission to find a cure for childhood cancer.

“The kids love it. They look forward to it every year,” Fox said. “They know that this money is going toward a good purpose. That makes them work even harder, which I think is wonderful.”

The fundraiser didn’t directly benefit the Tebeaus, but the family showed its support and appreciation. Ashlyn and Ella Grace were at the lemonade stand for its duration, and Ashlyn had the chance to speak with several of the donors.

“The family has been through so much, and they have such a great outlook on it,” Fox said. “And what a happy child Ella Grace is.”

Ella Grace’s challenges began the day she was born. Doctors suspected she had leukemia because her white blood cell count was “through the roof,” Ashlyn said.

To try to reduce her leukocyte level, doctors called for a complete blood exchange. Ella Grace’s tiny body “had one line going in her bellybutton and one line coming out,” Ashlyn explained.

However, the procedure was unsuccessful, and doctors decided the best option was to start chemotherapy. At just 6 days old, Ella Grace underwent her first chemo treatment.

“We were terrified,” Ashlyn said. “When we signed the paper for her to start her chemo, I think that’s the most I’ve ever cried in my entire life.”

Three more rounds of chemotherapy followed, along with a diagnosis confirming Ella Grace has Down syndrome. She was back in the hospital at 6 months old, for surgery to repair three holes in her heart.

“She’s a trooper,” Ashlyn said.

Ella Grace is now leukemia-free, but research shows she has a 25 percent chance of developing the disease again. She has monthly checkups to monitor her blood counts.

Through it all, Ashyln said, she and Timothy have trusted the doctors’ decisions. Even more so, they have relied on their strong faith.

“We’ve come this far and we’ve been blessed,” Ashlyn said. “We just had faith that everything was going to be OK. And we consider ourselves lucky to have her. She’s not lucky to have us — we’re lucky to have her.”

Part of the Tebeaus’ perspective comes from spending several weeks in the pediatric specialty unit while Ella Grace was being treated at Memorial Health University Medical Center. They saw many other families whose children were battling cancer.

“To see them suffer like that is nothing any parent should ever see their child go through, and so it really put our whole life in perspective,” Ashlyn said. “It’s not fair that an innocent child has to go through that. You just appreciate her so much more.”