Two faculty members at St. John Fisher Elementary School (SJF) are battling breast cancer.
But on May 28, they were reminded that the entire school community stands with them, as students marched and danced around West Beverly wearing pink shirts and holding signs with messages of support as part of a walkathon fundraiser.
Besides comforting their teachers, the students also donated funds to OSF Little Company of Mary Medical Center.
“It’s overwhelming; it really is,” said fifth-grade teacher Colleen Dunlavy, who was diagnosed in March. “It’s bigger than me. It’s the presence of God in every kid, every staff member, every person in the school, in the neighborhood, the moms—everybody. It’s been overwhelming. I haven’t had time to think of anything else except how much everyone loves me.”
Dunlavy, in her first year at SJF, danced with students outside the school as they marched by, part of their walk that took them along neighboring blocks.
Students wore pink shirts they designed and held signs with messages such as “Fight Together” and “Heroes.”
They raised about $4,000, which will be donated to OSF Little Company of Mary Medical Center in honor of the hospital’s annual Beverly Breast Cancer Walk, which is held every Mother’s Day.
The other faculty member, who requested to remain anonymous, was diagnosed around Christmas, and for months, students have strived to support both women.
Dunlavy, of Homewood, said she is not allowed to do any heavy lifting—students push her cart around, and co-workers carry her computer. Dunlavy receives a note of encouragement every day, she said, and students have made her inspiring videos and shared their own stories about family members battling health issues.
It’s all helped her as she said her diagnosis is promising after being treated at the University of Chicago Medical Center.
“For me, this has been huge—just the walk, the support and the people,” Dunlavy said. “The kids have been phenomenal; a lot of love.”
SJF Principal Maura Nash said students wrote letters to corporations and public figures asking for support, including Foot Locker, Nike, Walmart, LeBron James and Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Students and staff were stunned to learn a faculty member had breast cancer, but everyone “jumped on board” to help out.
“We couldn’t believe it,” Nash said, “and we just wanted to show a sign of love and support for them and make them understand that they’re not alone in their fight.”
Win Biernacki, an SJF resource teacher, called the co-workers battling breast cancer “two amazing women” who are “brave and strong.”
The walkathon was the least the school could do to help.
“Everyone loves them so much, and we all wanted to do this,” Biernacki said. “When you’re outside of it looking at them and what they’re going through, you want to do everything you can to support them. You feel somewhat helpless. There’s only so many things you can do.”
She said the walk taught students about empathy, sympathy, and how to rally around someone in need.
“Ultimately, breast cancer has touched everyone’s life in some way. We all know someone who has struggled with it,” she said. “It really hits home when you see someone who you see every single day who is battling it and doing it so bravely and so well and with lots of love and support.”
Biernacki praised the Chicago Police Department for escorting the walkathon participants, as well as parents who came out to cheer on the walkers. She said the effort was a “great tribute” to the community.
Dunlavy feels the same way.
“The community is what it’s all about,” Dunlavy said, “and that’s what St. John Fisher is all about—community and support.”