The students at Enterprise Public School helped grant a dying child’s Christmas wish just in time.
Jacob Thompson, 9, of Saco, Maine spent the last four years of his life battling Stage 4 neuroblastoma, a childhood cancer that spreads through the nervous system.
In early October, doctors told his family he likely wouldn’t be able to leave the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital again and they should probably begin making arrangements for his death. Thompson loved Christmas, so his family thought they might be able to give him one last special holiday.
They decorated his hospital room and put a tree by his bedside. Santa Claus was called in to make an early trip from the North Pole. They also thought the people around the world might be able to help by sending homemade Christmas cards — and the cards rolled in from all around the world.
Occasional teacher Brian Norris spotted the news story early last month and spoke about it with the Grade 6-7-8 class at Enterprise. The students wanted to help and their giving spirit was contagious.
Morgan Rines remembered their conversation and the domino effect that followed.
“As soon as he told our class, another class got involved with it and another and soon it became really big.”
The teachers also got on board and soon three classes were creating handmade cards and personalized letters for Thompson. They learned about his love of Christmas, of Star Wars, of Lego, and of singing. They also learned he loved penguins and took time thinking about his favourite poem, Ilan Shamir’s “Advice from a Penguin” which suggests — among other things — that people should dive into life, find warmth among friends, and stand together.
In turn, students from Grades 3-8 told Thompson about their own lives and their likes.
“We just wrote notes to him, saying what we liked and wrote to him telling him to stay strong,” Rines said.
The Kindergarten and Grade 1-2 students also learned about Thompson through classroom discussions with teachers linking their lesson plans to a familiar figure in Terry Fox.
Ultimately, the correspondence from Enterprise reached Portland, Maine in time for Thompson to see it, his family confirmed. Sadly, he passed away Nov. 19. Before he died, he had received more than 66,000 pieces of mail.
In a Facebook post, Thompson’s family stated the cards meant a great deal to him.
“Each and every person who sent Jacob a Christmas card, a gift, a Facebook message or video, or a prayer made a difference in the final days of his life. You brought Jacob joy, and you brought us all optimism for the future. Thank you for taking the time and taking an interest in our sweet boy’s journey. Sadly, there are many others like him that we hope you will continue to help.”
Some of the students at the school had a hard time imagining being sick with cancer at such a young age. When told he was only 5 at diagnosis, one Kindergarten students eyes widened as she made the connection: “I’m 5.”
Rines said it was hard to think about.
“It would be crazy, I don’t know how he fought it for so many years,” she said. “It shows, don’t take your health for granted because you’re so young — it doesn’t matter how old you are.”
Autumn Kirk, who is in the Grade 1-2 class, said the campaign taught students another important lesson.
“We learned to give stuff to people and always be kind,” she said.
Norris said he hoped the students would take away that sort of message.
“One parent told me that for their two daughters it was an emotional experience,” he said. “By doing this, it’s made the kids better people. They have more concern, compassion and empathy for others. There’s themes of ‘Do good deeds for people and don’t ask what’s in it for you,’ and ‘be appreciative of what you get and what you have.’
He also said seeing Thompson and how hard he battled could provide inspiration.
As a lasting memento of their interactions with Thompson, each class at Enterprise was given a musical, stuffed penguin, donated by the associates at Napanee Walmart. Each class named their animals and students feel a sense of pride when carrying them about the hallways.
“We decided to name ours Stink,” Rines said, while describing that for Thompson the perhaps unflattering phrase “You Stink” was a term of affection for his closest friends. “We’re going to keep him in our classroom and always have him there.”
One of the classes actually named its penguin Jacob after Thompson.