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Second Graders Learn of Empathy, Giving

​​​​​​​​​​​Who would have thought that second graders could take a very sad situation and turn it into a learning experience that would last a lifetime? The result was that they touched their community and made a generous donation to support cancer research at Marshfield Clinic.

It started when the mother of one of the boys in Marilou Gilman’s class at Three Lakes Elementary School was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. One would think his classmates would be sympathetic. But some of the second graders – as children do occasionally -- teased and ridiculed the boy during recess.

“I’ve never had a child with such a close family member facing cancer, so I wasn’t sure how to approach it,” Gilman said. When she learned about the playground harassment, her first step was to inform the parents, who had some talks at home about what a serious situation it was for the young boy and his family.

From there, the kids started thinking about how they could help. One of the boys put it succinctly: “Let’s kick cancer in the butt.”

Another boy thought of putting a large jar for donations in their classroom. Similar jars soon appeared in the elementary school office, and then the high school office. The son of the woman with cancer emptied his piggy bank and gave $108, keeping just $20 from what he had received in gifts and allowances.

Other students emptied their banks and looked for any loose change they could find. It took no time at all for word to reach the Northwoods community of Three Lakes, population 2,387.

Anonymous donations started coming in from teachers and community members, including one from a woman who identified herself as a “cancer patient and survivor due to cancer research.”

Scot Lundquist, a volunteer teaching assistant, heard Gilman giving a science lesson and made a challenge: for every child in the class who could describe how the “scientific drinking bird” (used in her presentation) and a thunderstorm were alike, he would donate $1 to the cause.

He found two other people who were willing to match it. All 17 students met the challenge, which required them to grasp the connection between condensation, evaporation and precipitation.

A friend of Gilman’s, who has had cancer treatment at Marshfield Clinic, gave her a copy of the Clinic’s BenchMarks magazine, which had a story about cancer research. Based on that story, the children decided their money should go to Marshfield Clinic.

“I think the kids have learned about giving, and that research is the way we will help overcome some of these horrible diseases like cancer,” she said. “I also really liked that they wanted to keep the money here in Wisconsin. I think they know they’ve done something special. It’s their way of giving their classmate some help.

“As a teacher, empathy comes to mind. It’s hard to teach empathy to little kids. You can only try to explain it, but I felt they truly gained empathy. We turned it around from tears and fighting, and they realized that cancer is a scary thing.”

“It’s going to go for research, to help get machines and more stuff for testing,” one of the boys said of their contribution. Another quietly said he was thinking of the boy’s mother when he put money in the jar. A third said he hoped their efforts would bring the honorary “Blue Jay Banner,” featuring the school’s mascot, to their classroom.

This story doesn’t have a fairy tale ending. The woman with cancer died on a chilly weekend in April. However, the students at Three Lakes Elementary School, through their efforts, are helping to search for a cure with the hope that other families will not have to experience what their classmate did.