MUMS students craft messages of hope for cancer patients

HOLLY WHITNEY, LEFT, and Keenan Chicoine are among a group of Middlebury Union Middle School students who are decorating cards for cancer patients statewide. It’s part of the American Cancer Society’s “Daffodil Days” fundraising program.

One of our standards is writing to an audience, with purpose. And some of the hardest things to write are sympathy notes, thank-you notes and letters to people you don’t know.
— MUMS teacher Barbara Colette

MIDDLEBURY — It was a quick and fun assignment for Barbara Colette’s 7th-grade class at Middlebury Union Middle School last Wednesday: String together some heartfelt words, and perhaps an uplifting drawing, on the back of a card.
“You shine so bright.”
“Never give up.”
“Keep believing.”
Cocooned in the protective shell of youth, these students can’t yet fully realize the joy their simple creations will bring dozens of cancer patients who will soon receive the cards and savor the hope that each message brings as they battle through energy sapping chemotherapy that will hopefully restore them to good health.
It’s all part of the American Cancer Society’s “Daffodil Days,” an annual fundraiser for ongoing research into a cure for the second-biggest killer of U.S. citizens (trailing only heart disease). The daffodil is the colorful first flower of spring and has come to symbolize hope for cancer patients and those affected by the sadly ubiquitous ailment. Supporters can contribute $10 for a bunch of daffodils, $15 for a pot of mini daffodils, or make a $25 donation to support the “Gift of Hope” program.
And for a second year in a row, Colette’s 7th-graders are playing a key role in that Gift of Hope program, through which they are personally decorating the cards that will, along with beautiful daffodils, be distributed to around 400 patients in hospitals and treatment centers throughout the Green Mountain State.
“The students love it,” Colette said of the assignment. “Young people are naturally very creative and compassionate. It’s a great way to sort of eat your spinach doing something really nice.”
The MUMS collaboration with the American Cancer Society began last year. Colette was looking for community service opportunities for her students, activities that could at the same time improve their reading skills.
Colette is friends with Hilary Casillas, senior manager for the American Cancer Society of Vermont. They both live in Monkton and belong to the same club. Both have volunteered at the Hope Lodge at UVM Medical Center in Burlington. It’s a comfortable place where cancer patients can stay for free while they’re getting treatment. Fifty-six Addison County cancer patients stayed at Hope Lodge last year, according to Casillas.
“I had the idea then that it would be fun to bring a group of students to the lodge to cook,” Colette said.
But she found few educational links between cooking and literacy. So decorating the Gift of Hope cards became a great fallback.
“One of our standards is writing to an audience, with purpose,” Colette said. “And some of the hardest things to write are sympathy notes, thank-you notes and letters to people you don’t know.”
Colette’s students last year decorated more than 100 Gift of Hope cards. They were the only students in the state to do it.
And they did it very well.
 “Many of the patients who received Gifts of Hope last year called me to say how much it meant to them,” Casillas said. “For many of them, last winter was dark and bleak and cold — in addition to what they were going through with chemotherapy. Having that knock on the door and a sunny bouquet of flowers delivered meant a lot.”
Indeed, many card recipients left tender, grateful voicemails for Casillas.
“I wasn’t prepared for the response I got from all the cancer patients who received (the cards),” Casillas said. “There was a woman who left me a voicemail at around 11 p.m., and she said, ‘I’m alone, somebody picks me up a couple times a week to go to treatment. Other than that, I don’t really see people. So to get a knock on my door with a friendly face delivering beautiful flowers meant so much.’”
Colette this year once again offered her students’ talents to the Gift of Hope program. They’ll put their personal touches on a combined 150 Gift of Hope cards, according to Casillas. Around 300 additional cards will simply bear American Cancer Society information, though Casillas hopes to recruit other children and adults to lend their artistic and literary skills between now and mid-March.
If anyone is interested, they should contact Casillas at [email protected].

Students Holly Whitney and Keenan Chicoine were among those who carefully crafted messages to patients they’ll likely never meet due to the anonymity of the program. But the assignment was nonetheless personal; both students’ families have been touched by cancer.
Holly’s card reads, “I hope your season has been good. I wanted to brighten your day by giving you a sunny note, because I don’t want you to have a cloudy day.”
“I think it’s good to experience this,” she said. “I think it’s cool we get to do this for people who don’t get stuff that often.”
Keenan also enjoyed the assignment.
“I think it’s really fun that we get to make cards for people,” he said. “It makes them really happy.”
The American Cancer Society of Vermont will take daffodil orders through Feb. 21. A corps of volunteers will deliver the flowers during the third week of March. The Gift of Hope daffodils and cards will make their way to folks at Porter Medical Center, the University of Vermont Medical Center, Dartmouth-Hitchcock, as well as hospitals in Bennington, St. Albans and Newport.
Porter spokesman Ron Hallman praised the Daffodil Days effort.
“We applaud and appreciate the efforts of the Middlebury Union Middle School students who are working to bring a smile and some comfort to our patients and to others in our community suffering from cancer,” he said. “This is a great program and we are thankful to the MUMS students and program organizers.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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