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Turning grief into HOPE

Montessori community dedicates run to those stricken by cancer, injury
by: contributed photo Mother Francine Cardew and Sister Kathleen Ann Cieslak, both of whom are fighting cancer, helped inspire a school-wide fundraiser at the Franciscan Montessori Earth School in East Portland.

They say bad things happen in threes.

If that's the case, the Franciscan Montessori Earth School has experienced more than its share of heartache.

Over the past year, founder Mother Francine Cardew began chemotherapy in her third battle against cancer.

Administrator Sister Kathleen Ann Cieslak was diagnosed in October with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and also began chemotherapy.

And just the month before, Kristin Ollenbrook - the school's athletic director and mother of two students - died after a five-year fight against breast and bone cancer.

Meanwhile, three sisters - who with Cardew and Cieslak help operate the school as part of the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist based in Bridal Veil - were severely injured in a car crash.

As 2011 rolled around, students, parents and staff were still reeling.

Feeling powerless and hopeless in the face of such relentless adversity and loss, Samantha Karustis turned to another parent whose child attends the East Multnomah County school.

Tam Driscoll knows a thing or two about matters being beyond one's control: One of her sisters died of cancer. But Tam has always been one to focus on the things she can do. That's why she began raising money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society long before her sister was ever diagnosed.

Tam, who works at Gresham City Hall, has since become one of the nation's top fundraisers for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society through its Team in Training program, in which participants train for endurance events such as marathons or triathlons while raising money to find a cure for cancer.

Samantha and Tam began talking.

Then they began doing.

'We planned, we plotted and came up with Team HOPE,' Samantha said.

Team HOPE is a group of nearly 100 parents, teachers, students, relatives, neighbors and friends who are training for the Race for the Roses half-marathon Sunday, April 3.

'That's a really remarkable turnout given how small the school is,' Tam said, adding that it has about 250 students. 'The key is you've got to act and be a part of something. Then you can feel like what you're doing is making a difference.'

For more than two months, Team HOPE has been meeting on Wednesdays and Saturdays to run, walk or do a combination of both. Not everyone is running 13.1 miles. The race also includes a 10K and a 5K, so just about anyone can take part.

As they train, they're promoting physical fitness.

Take for example Marianne Cursetjee, who was jogging along the Springwater Trail with a group from Team HOPE on Saturday, March 5.

'I'm on this journey to get in shape,' she said. 'This effort is solidifying that quest. It's all just meant to be.'

But she's also acutely aware of the greater goal behind her training.

Her father recently was diagnosed with melanoma. And another mother whose children go to the Franciscan Montessori Earth School just discovered she has breast cancer.

'There are so many people I know who have cancer,' she said. 'It's everywhere.'

Money raised by Team HOPE will honor their loved ones who are fighting cancer or who have lost the fight. Ten percent of money raised will benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

They're also raising money to fund the school's gardening program and two 'earth experiences,' or field trips. The team's goal is to raise $40,000.

In the processes, they're creating 'something positive out of our grief,' Samantha said.

Students have really embraced the cause, she added.

They're taking part in a Race for HOPE, modeled after the Race for the Arts, on Friday, April 1, at the school. Students will collect pledges and run or walk for 30 minutes.

Creative students are doing an art project to support Team HOPE.

Students and staff also painted a tree called The Tree of Life that hangs in the lobby.

'It is a metaphor for our school in many ways,' Samantha said. 'Our connectedness to the earth; Mother Francine and the sisters as our roots; parents and alumni as branches; and children as the leaves.'

A $25 donation represents one leaf that can be dedicated to someone in honor of - or in memory of - their fight against cancer.

There's even a bring-in-your-pennies kind of fundraiser that could result in the school's master gardener shaving his head or eating a can of cat food.

'Hey, he offered,' Samantha said.

Feeling inspired?

• It isn't too late to get involved. Join Team HOPE if you're willing to run or walk with them in the Race for the Roses on Sunday, April 3. Pledge support for a student taking part in the Race for HOPE. Donate $25 for a leaf on the Tree of Life at the school in honor of - or in memory of - someone who has lived with cancer. For more details on how you can help or to donate, check out the school's website at fmes.org.