Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School principal Dan Lower introduces teacher Tawnya Wasilenko

Thurber family lends strength to teacher in cancer fight

How do you show love and support for someone facing a very serious illness?

How do you show love and support for someone facing a very serious illness?

Well, if you are part of the Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School family, you secretly plan an entire-school rally to help give that special person strength to do battle with — in this case — breast cancer.

Teacher Tawnya Wasilenko is at home today recovering from mastectomy surgery she had a month ago, soon to begin chemotherapy, and then perhaps radiation.

Wasilenko, 40, married to Tyler, and the mother of Brayden, 13, and Isabella, 10, learned in August she had cancer. She has taught at the school for the past 12 years.

On Oct. 9, she was busy teaching the last class of the day, and her last class before being off work for surgery.

Suddenly, in the middle of the class, over the intercom, Rachel Platten’s Fight Song started to play. She was bewildered but paused to listen to the song, which is about being strong, and using one’s power to fight.

And then someone knocked on her classroom door — principal Dan Lower.

“He walked me into that magnificent rally of support.”

Lower led her out the door and down the hallways, all lined with hundreds students and staff wearing pink, holding signs of support, and then into the packed gymnasium where hundreds more greeted her, as well as her husband and son.

“It was a complete surprise. I don’t know how 1,700 kids kept it quiet, let alone my own son who attended.” Her daughter, who knew about the secret plan, didn’t attend because she knew it would be too emotional.

And when you watch the video as the event unfolds, with Wasilenko having to pause, bend down, and gather herself a few times as Lower leads her to the gym and then to her family, it is indeed one of those unforgettable moments showing all the good and kindness that people are capable of.

The video started making its way around social media this week.

“Isn’t it amazing. I can’t even talk about it without crying,” she said Thursday. And yes, she’s crying.

“My amazing support rally at the best school in the world. That one.” And now she laughs.

“I have to watch the video to really take it in because if I’m being totally honest there was so much that I didn’t take in that day.

“Thurber is a great school. We refer to it as the Thurber family. … Not until something like this happens do you really understand what that entails.”

Lower tells his side of the story.

“We just have a super special staff member that we wanted to make sure she knew we were all behind her.”

With his staff, they began to formulate a plan.

“We have a lot of really good teachers … unfortunately staff members pass away, but no one has faced a serious illness like this in my time. I’ve been here for 15 years. And so how do we help somebody through this, and just be part of a big family.

“She’s just a super compassionate caring teacher. … You know that from talking to kids here how much she cares about them.”

So they cooked up the plan, with the nod of course from Wasilenko’s husband. Secret emails were sent out to staff. Students had to be careful Wasilenko didn’t notice them preparing signs.

Lower admits conning her a bit. He suggested that since it was Breast Cancer Awareness Month and her last day was coming, maybe people could show support for Breast Cancer Awareness by wearing pink on that day.

As Lower tells it, she had told her students she had the disease by doing a lesson about breast cancer awareness and asking them if they knew anyone who had it. “Well you all know someone now,” she told them.

“It was really really cool,” Lower said when Wasilenko realized what was happening.

The school has 1,650 students and 83 teachers and they all had to keep things a secret. Somehow they managed. About 1,200 were able to participate in the event that day.

The school raised funds and presented Wasilenko with a pink robe, with “Lindsay Thurber” embroidered on it. The family also received gift cards, including ones for restaurants so they don’t need to cook when Mom is doing chemo. They gave Isabella a teddy bear.

On Wasilenko’s last day at school she was a bit surprised to see so many wearing pink.

“I had thought we were raising breast cancer awareness, which will be my life mission I think from now on. And I thought it odd that so many people dressed in pink, but I thought, ‘Oh that’s just great!’”

“I’ve never been a part of anything like that.”

The video, which was shot by LTCHS students as part of a class project, was uploaded to YouTube on Thursday. Search “LTCHS Support Wasilenko” or go to the link

It’s an emotional ride so keep the tissue close by.

A special longer video was given to Wasilenko’s daughter to watch since she wasn’t at the event.

As well, students took photos as an assignment, which were provided to The Advocate by the school.

“I’m recovering well. I haven’t had a down day about this yet,” said Wasilenko. She admits she’s anxious about chemo and thinks that surgery was the “easy part.”

Of the 13 lymph nodes removed during surgery, only two tested positive for cancer.

“I’m very optimistic and statistics are high, and I have two children I need to survive for. We’re very optimistic in our house.”

And now she has that incredible day at school to remember.

“You know what I took from that? I took from that, that in my darkest days, that particular instance I think is what’s going to get me through those days.

“The love and support from the staff and students was incomprehensible. I could have never,” she pauses, “it’s unfathomable. Like I still can’t even talk about it without crying,” she says, crying.

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