HOULTON, Maine — When Leanne Faulkingham welcomes her kindergarten students to her Houlton Elementary School classroom each year, she knows that she will spend the year teaching them reading and writing skills as well as how to share, get along with their peers and function in the classroom.
When Makenna Ward entered her classroom in the fall of 2013, however, she quickly found herself teaching her 5- and 6-year-old students about some very adult words, including neuroblastoma, chemotherapy, and most heartbreakingly, death.
“I found myself in really uncharted territory,” Faulkingham, who was the 6-year-old’s teacher until her death on Dec. 29, 2013, said Wednesday. “Makenna really was the heartbeat of my classroom, and my students were devastated when she died. They felt a tremendous loss that they still feel.”
Makenna was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma in 2009 when she was 23 months old. The cancer develops from immature nerve cells found in several areas of the body. She received several treatments of chemotherapy, multiple surgeries and stem cell transplants, but could not overcome the disease.
Faulkingham said that the impact of Makenna’s death was felt not only by students in her classroom, but by the entire school community. That motivated Sarah Estabrook, a first-grade teacher at Houlton Elementary, to spring into action.
Estabrook said Wednesday that she is close with the Ward family, which includes Makenna’s parents, Kirk and Amy of Houlton, and her siblings, Felicity and Blake. Estabrook said that her sister, Amber Brown, is a director for the company Thirty-One, which sells a variety of products such as bags, purses, office supplies and more.
According to Estabrook, Brown heard about an idea other directors in her company had used, known as chemotherapy comfort bags. The concept involved individuals purchasing bags from Thirty-One for donation, and then using any profits made from the sale to buy items to go into the bags, such as a fleece blanket, candy, lip balm, lotion and tissues. Bags specified for children would have a stuffed animal inside.
Brown wanted to purchase some bags in honor of her grandparents and then also thought about Makenna.
“Amber contacted me and asked if I was interested in purchasing a bag since she knew I was so close to the Ward family and we had just lost Kenna,” Estabrook said Wednesday. “I did, and I thought I could sell some more, so I just texted a few teachers who were close to Kenna and her family, and I sold eight bags in just a few minutes. I told my sister that I thought I could sell more, so I sent out an email to the whole district and in 40 hours, 70 bags were sold.”
When that happened, Estabrook decided that to honor Makenna, the bags should be renamed “Kenna Comfort Bags,” and set about filling them with items to honor the child. Community members and organizations soon caught word of what was going on, she said, and donated homemade quilts from County Comfort Quilts, fleece blankets from numerous individuals, along with books, coloring books, small games, markers, nail polish, toy cars, Play-Doh, baseball caps and more.
The bags were then to be delivered to Eastern Maine Medical Center ’s Lafayette Family Cancer Center in Brewer, where Makenna received treatment. The bags would be given to children on their first day of chemotherapy treatment.
“We had so much extra stuff that we were able to deliver 10 boxes full of extra goods to the Ronald McDonald House in Bangor,” she said. “They were so grateful.”
Faulkingham said that her pupils really threw themselves into the project.
“Makenna was so open with them,” she said. “She was not afraid of showing her classmates what she had gone through. She showed them her chemotherapy port, she talked about her treatments. And with this project, they gave back. She loved the color blue, so they brought in blue things like bouncy balls. Some of them brought in their favorite toys and tried to put them in the bags. The most common question was ‘How are we going to get these to Makenna?’ I would say, ‘We’re not going to get these to Makenna, but they are going to kids like Makenna.’ And that made them happy.”
Faulkingham said that last Friday, students in prekindergarten through grade three each took 45 minutes and helped pack up some of the bags so that they could be taken to the cancer care facility in Brewer, and also made handmade cards. Each bag contained a little note about Makenna. Thirty-six of the bags were delivered to the Brewer facility on Tuesday, Estabrook said, because that is all that were needed at this time. The Ward family is holding the remainder until they are requested.
Faulkingham said that it was nice to see the Ward family participate in the packing event held at the school on April 18.
“I think it was a bit healing for them to see what was taking place,” she said. “Amy Ward volunteered in the classroom when Kenna was a student, and she still does. That is very helpful for her classmates to continue to see Mrs. Ward. They still include Makenna in the classroom activities, they talk about her every day. Even when a substitute teacher is there, they tell her about Makenna.”
Kirk Ward said Wednesday that the family was thrilled with how the project turned out and the support they have received from the community throughout their daughter’s illness.
“We’re excited about the whole process, even though our grief is still very raw,” he said. “Kenna has only been gone about four months. But this project shares the hope that she possessed, the love that she had, as well as the faith that she had. I’ve never seen a 6-year-old that was so mature in her faith. She was a ray of sunshine through this whole thing. She fought cancer for about five years. It went into remission once, but it came back in 2012, and unfortunately, it just got the best of her. But my daughter was a magnet. We’ve learned a lot through her, and through this project, we believe that others are going to learn a lot through her, too.”
He added that the family intends to take some of the bags to Maine Medical Center in Portland, where Makenna received treatment, as well as to hospitals in the Boston area where she sought care. They want this to become a yearly project and are positive that they can make it happen and also expand it to include bags for adults. They also are looking to start a scholarship in their daughter’s memory to support nursing students.
He said that taking the bags to the Brewer cancer center was a “healing journey.”
“It was the first time that we had been back there,” he said Wednesday. “My wife gave out the first bag to a child that was receiving treatment, and I didn’t see it, but she told me that his face just lit up and he started digging through the bag and was so excited with what he found inside. That made us both so very happy.”
Estabrook said that the Ward family had no idea that they were selling bags in Makenna’s honor until after the 70 bags were sold. When it was completed, Estabrook went to the Ward home to tell them about the project and let them know that the students would be helping to pack the bags.
It was then that Amy Ward told her that Makenna had once told her that she wanted to do something to help children with cancer. She wasn’t sure what, but Amy Ward promised her daughter that she would make it happen.
“Our eyes filled with tears,” Estabrook said Wednesday. “When I was explaining to my students about the bag packing, I told them that they were helping Makenna and they were helping to change the world. And they were.”