LUXEMBURG — Tessa Gilley’s favorite color is pink and she loves elephants, so her cousin, Maddi Mleziva, made sure to incorporate the two into her T-shirt design for next month’s “Tessa’s Tailgate,” a fundraising event to help the Gilley family with medical costs. The benefit is one of many efforts in support of Tessa, who in the spring was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that affects children.
Tessa, 12, the daughter of Kris and Anne Gilley, is a sixth-grade student at St. Mary School. Due to her continuing treatments, there was uncertainty if she would be able to attend school this fall.
“A big part of what we have done as a school was we created a custom education plan for her,” said Fr. Daniel Schuster, administrator at St. Mary Parish. “We hired someone. It’s kind of a unique situation with the right person at the right time and God took care of us for that. That just doesn’t happen. Lots of people put their heads together to make that happen.”
Marc Vandenhouten, principal at St. Mary School, said that plans began immediately after learning of Tessa’s illness to give her the opportunity to be in the classroom. The school explored grant options and was able to secure funding for a tutor to work with Tessa and another student (as part of the grant requirement).
“(Tessa) is in school part-time,” said Vandenhouten. “Carrie (Crane) works directly with Tessa here at St. Mary School, and she also serves as a liaison with the parents, back and forth with daily communications. When Tessa is not able to be present, Carrie will actually go up to the hospital or to Tessa’s house off-site, whatever is agreed upon.”
Crane, who has a teaching background in private schools, said that she mostly helps Tessa with math and reading. She also provides some extra academic games.
“(Tessa) is coming from all this stuff — major life things — and then she’s jumping into school,” explained Crane. “‘Yesterday, I looked in the mirror and my eyelashes are gone,’ and ‘where’s my notebook?’ That’s a lot. I truly feel blessed to be working with Tessa.”
Jennifer Budzban, Tessa’s homeroom, math, science and social studies teacher, said that the sixth-grade students look out for their classmate.
“They will say, ‘When Tessa gets back, we need to tell her this,’” said Budzban. “Some days she leaves at 10 a.m. and returns later in the day. They fill her in on what’s happening. It’s a work in progress, but we are happy when she is here and happy when she can get her treatments. Being a Catholic school, we pray for her every day. She is on our prayer board.”
Classmates Alayna Deprez and Alana Mrotek echoed the happiness of having Tessa in school, even if it’s parttime. The two girls were front and center for a special video in support of Tessa last school year. All students in grades 3K-6 participated in the production led by music teacher Roxanne Zellner. Among the other fundraising efforts were a bake sale that raised more than $4,000, the sale of “Tessa’s Troop” bracelets and special shoelaces, and the principal serving as a human sundae.
“The last day of school I sat in a kiddie pool and any student who wanted to make a donation to the Gilley family was able to put almost anything (ice cream toppings) they wanted on me,” explained Vandenhouten. “I found out the hard way that caramel actually hardens when you put cold water on it.”
Vandenhouten expects some “ups and downs” for the students who are close to Tessa.
“From time to time, they wear their emotions on their sleeves,” he said, “but they understand that she is in good hands. God is looking after her and it’s our job to do everything we can possibly do to support her when she is at St. Mary’s.”
A parish-wide prayer service was held for Tessa at St. Mary Church. Fr. Schuster asked her to come to the front so everyone could pray with her.
“She made it clear that she doesn’t ever want me to do that again,” he said.
“She is not one to be the center of attention,” said Anne, Tessa’s mother. “The prayer service was very nice.”
These past few months have put life in perspective, said Anne.
“Hopefully people realize how lucky they are and realize that there are a lot of things in life that aren’t very important,” she said. “Think about the things that are important.”
She added how grateful she is for all the support.
“I can’t thank them enough,” she said.
“If there is a need identified, we will be there,” said Fr. Schuster. “Immediately, there were all kinds of ideas. The Holy Spirit showed us how we can best serve Tessa and her family as part of our family.”