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February 8, 2011 A Valentine for Savannah — Hope Is an Open Heart By Danielle Mahoney

    With Valentine's Day approaching, we are all making plans to create heart-shaped cards, write thoughtful poems, and teach our students to send messages of love to friends and family. Before the glitter dries, I'm hoping to inspire all of you to send an extra special valentine to an amazing girl named Savannah who is fighting hard to beat a rare type of cancer. Click on the links below to find out more about her as you gather resources to help teach your students about love, understanding, and hope this Valentine's Day.

    Jessica's Journey

    Over the years, I've had the chance to meet so many unique, bright, thoughtful, hard-working students. During my last year as a classroom teacher, I was blessed to have Jessica Easley, a 9-year-old girl living in Arkansas, unofficially added to my class list. How did this happen? Let me explain.

    A few years ago, I got involved with some volunteer work in my community, which inspired me to create a very small nonprofit organization called Seeds of Love. Through our work, we've reached out to many amazing kids who are battling childhood cancer.

    In July of 2008, we found about about Jessica, a special young girl battling alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare soft tissue cancer. Her medical bills were growing, and we wanted to do something to help out her family. We held a small fundraiser in her honor and started following her journey on CaringBridge, a Web site that allows families who are experiencing health issues to connect with others. 

    To help my students get to know this spunky and vibrant girl, I put together this collage of photos. The first photo was taken in 2005 when Jessica was just 7. She didn't let even the loss of her right leg take away from living an adventurous life. What a brave girl!

    One day in September, Jessica's mom shared a story on Jessica's CaringBridge page about an assignment she was given in school. She was asked to write a six paragraph report about her best friend. She had recently moved to a new school and felt that she was "the new kid" to most of the students there and that people only felt sorry for her. No one was a "real" friend. She decided to write the report on her best friend, her dog, Leeroy.

    The very next day, I spoke with my 2nd grade students and we decided to start a special friendship with Jessica. We began by writing letters, telling her that she had plenty of friends in New York City. Word about Jessica began to spread in my school, and many other classes joined in on the letter writing. Jessica's circle of friends was growing by the minute!

    But it didn't stop there.

    We wanted to visit with Jessica. We pulled up Shirley, Arkansas, on Google Maps and saw how different her neighborhood was from the busy streets of Jackson Heights, New York, where we were. Geography and social studies were being explored in my classroom in a very exciting way.



    Jessica's mom, Teresa, and I set up accounts with Skype. I hooked up an old projector to my laptop and pulled down the overhead screen to prepare for our special meeting. (No Promethean or SmartBoards in our classroom back then!) We ran a few tests, had some audio glitches fixed, and finally got together to "meet."  What an incredible day.



    Jessica speaks with the class . . . and tells us about the bracelets she likes to make as she holds one up in the air for us to see.











    The conversation continues . . . and Eric gets to met Leeroy!


    During our talk, Jessica promised to make bracelets for each one of my students and mailed them off to us a few weeks later. We wore them until they fell off.


    Teresaanddan Getting kids to write for a real purpose is powerful. When my former students visit me all these years later, they often remind me of their experience with Jessica. I've kept in touch with her family over the years and even had the chance to meet Teresa in person when she traveled to New York City for work. I listened to stories about Jessica and her sister, Katie. We took a drive into the city to see the sights and later shared a home-cooked Italian dinner. Teresa is one amazing lady.

    Sadly, on October 13, 2009, just one day shy of her eleventh birthday, Jessica passed away at home surrounded by her loving family. 


    The experience I had of bringing Jessica into my classroom was one that my students and I will cherish forever. I hope that Jessica's story will inspire you to reach out to my new friend Savannah. 

    ★ You Are Invited to a Special Event! â˜…

    A few weeks ago, Teresa invited me to an event hosted by Nile Peaytt, the founder of Songs For The Cure Nashville. All I needed to do to attend was send a card to Savannah Swandal. Of course, I sat down with my niece and nephew and began making cards right away. 

    Ryancard  Oliviacard  









    With Valentine's Day around the corner, I want to invite all of you to this special event as well. As you work on teaching your students about love, understanding, and appreciation this month, please take the time to introduce them to Savannah and get inspired to create valentines for her to enjoy!

    Meet Savannah

    Savannahfeb2006 SavannahAugust2010









    Here is Savannah at age 5 (always smiling) . . . and at age 10 on her first day of 5th grade.

    Savannah is a beautiful 10-year-old girl living in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. She was diagnosed with alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma (the same cancer that Jessica fought) at the age of 5. She has relapsed three times since then. She continues her fight with lots of hope. Her most recent scans showed that the radiation treatments have not worked and that the cancer has grown. 

    Teachers, you can watch this YouTube video to learn more about Savannah's fight. It's possible that your school's Internet filters may make this page difficult to view, so please take the time to view it at home. 

    These words came with Nile's initial invite. I'm extending the invite to you!

    We are asking people to send a simple card to her. She needs fuel to fight. We are wanting thousands of cards to reach her mailbox. Time isn't on our side here. . . . Let's keep that smile on her face. Let's keep the HOPE in her heart. Let's help her forget her pain . . . even if it's just for a minute.

    Create Your Valentines!

    Alberto Albertovalentine






    Silviavanessa Silvia Valentinefriends


    Show your students a few photos of Savannah and tell them about this special project.


    Paula holds up a collage of Savannah's photos.

    I asked Savannah's mom, Robin, to tell us a little bit about her, and here's what she said:

    • Savannah loves the color purple! She also likes lime green and pink.
    • She loves her dog, Sunshine, and sleeps with her at night. (Sunshine is a Westie — just like Coconut from American Girl.)
    • Savannah loves to listen to music and is a great dancer! Boy, can she move. 
    • She likes to play games on her iPad and the Wii and also likes playing board games and cards. 
    • She loves nail polish, peace signs, the word "HOPE" — which also happens to be her middle name.
    • She loves watching David Bromstad on HGTV's Color Splash who did her bedroom makeover through Make-A-Wish.
    • She likes to watch The Nanny, iCarly, and America's Next Top Model.
    • She loves fashion and looking through fashion magazines.
    • She likes flowers — gerber daisies are her favorite!
    • She likes playing with her American Girl baby dolls & dressing them up in cute outfits.

    Oh, and guess what! Savannah's birthday is coming up on February 23rd. She's turning 11, so please send her some birthday wishes as well.

    I hope this information will help your students create the perfect valentine for her. Remind students to keep it simple. (No mention of cancer, please!) Just a short poem or letter with a colorful drawing to let her know how special she is. Help keep hope in her heart.

    Mail your cards to:

    A Valentine for Savannah â™¥
    Savannah Swandal
    1809 Brisbane Ln.
    Mt Juliet,TN 37122


    Books About Hope, Love, and Understanding




    Hope Is An Open Heart by Lauren Thompson

    “Hope is sad tears flowing, making room joy.”

    At the summer’s end, I always go shopping for books to read aloud to my students during the upcoming school year. This August, I found myself in The Scholastic Store in SoHo, NYC. As I browsed the shelves, I found Hope Is an Open Heart and knew I had to have it. I wasn’t sure when I would actually fit it in until I found out about Savannah. I love this book. The words are simple, but the message is deep. I recently read it to Mrs. Bayer’s 3rd graders and Ms. Levithan's 4th graders after introducing them to Savannah. We took turns crying as we were moved by the words and images. Hope IS an open heart.


    MsR Mrs. Rubenstein's Beauty by Pep Montserrat

    "But their eyes don't see their eyes anymore, just their hearts."

    You may find this book to be a bit odd, but I LOVE it. Hopefully your students can get past the shock of the bearded lady to see the messages about unconditional love and inner beauty. The illustrations are bold and gorgeous and will keep your students focused on the story. If you point out that the text is rich with interesting vocabulary words, such as "gesture," "secretly," "harmony," "grace," "delicate," and "discreetly," it may inspire your students to use words like these in their own writing instead of boring words like “nice.”


    HeartandbottleThe Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers

    “Feeling unsure, the girl thought the best thing was to put her heart in a safe place. Just for the time being.”

    This book deals with the theme of love and loss in such a unique and beautiful way. The main character in the story has a wonderful sense of curiosity that is supported by a very special person in her life. When he passes away, she becomes very sad and locks her heart away, until a young girl helps her find it again. I got to meet Oliver Jeffers at a book signing in Brooklyn. He is a talented artist and a wonderful writer. Get a hold of anything he’s written, and you will be pleased.

    I thought about the topics of love and loss a lot recently. A few weeks ago, my cat Fred, who lived with me for 18 years, passed away. It was so sad to see him go. Please remember to love and appreciate those who are special to you and live every day as though it's Valentine's Day. 


    Resources for Teaching Children About Cancer

    Teaching children about cancer isn't easy. Through my classroom visits this week, children have shared stories about family members and fellow students with cancer. Children have lots of questions. They asked me why people with cancer go bald, for instance. I explained that the strong medicine that cancer patients sometimes take makes their hair fall out, but that in time, it grows back. We talked about how some cancers can be prevented, and how they should stay away from smoking cigarettes and eating lots of junk food, and how they should wear sunscreen. These conversations are important to have and will build your students' understanding about cancer and those affected by the disease.

    Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation and KidsHealth are great resources for information. You can also reach out to People Against Childhood Cancer and St. Baldrick's to get involved with events that help raise awareness of childhood cancer.  

    When teachers got together to create cards for Project Give, we were able to deliver over 2,600 cards to homebound seniors in NYC. Let's do our best to fill up Savannah's mailbox with lots of love and send HOPE her way. Thank you for taking the time to create a valentine for Savannah. I'd love to see photos of what your students create. Feel free to email me with questions or photos at Big hugs to all of you!



         Happy Valentine's Day!



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