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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, February 19, 2009
With hearts as big as a school bus, Westmere kids celebrate Ben
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND A 10-ton Valentine rolled down Birch Drive on Friday afternoon and stopped in front of Ben Grant’s house.
The windows of the Guilderland school bus, driven by Ben’s father, were decorated with sheets of pink and red construction paper. Ben’s fourth-grade classmates had carefully spelled out, “Surprise, Ben.”
And Ben was surprised.
He came running out of his house with a look of wonder on his face.
Ben is being treated for leukemia. The chemotherapy has reduced his white blood cell count, his father, Bill, explained, so that Ben can’t be around many people. He wouldn’t be able to fight an infection. So he can’t go to school.
His classroom teacher, Melissa DeLuca, has been serving as his tutor.
“She’s allotted an hour but goes far above that,” said Mr. Grant. “She comes on weekends. She comes when he’s in the hospital....She’s become a friend.”
“She’s always there for him,” said Ben’s mother, Gina Grant.
Mrs. DeLuca said she got the inspiration for the traveling Valentine one evening when she was home, washing dishes. It came to her as a vision.
She had been tutoring Ben that day and he had been excited about Valentine’s Day. She recalled, “He said, ‘I’m going in for the party.’” When he found out he couldn’t go, he became frustrated.
“I was home doing the dishes, and I got this vision of the bus coming and all of the kids getting off. It was an aha! moment. I talked to Bill and he got permission and we made it happen.”
Ben was diagnosed with leukemia in October. “It was surreal,” said his father. “It doesn’t happen to you. You read about it in books or in the newspaper.”
“He was getting spiking headaches,” said his mother. “He didn’t have his usual energy. He was short of breath.”
Ben’s family his parents and two older sisters, McKenzie and Amber have weathered the storm. “You just can’t break down and fall apart,” said Mr. Grant.
Ben has received good treatment at Albany Medical Center, Mr. Grant said, and the school district, where he has worked for 25 years, has been supportive “from my co-workers up to the superintendent who gave me a personal call at home.”
Mrs. DeLuca has served as a go-between with Ben and his classmates. When Ben was first diagnosed with leukemia, the school social worker, Louisa Lombardo, talked to the class about it. “She explained it in the perfect way for 9-year-olds to understand without being afraid,” said Mrs. DeLuca.
Mrs. DeLuca has kept his classmates posted on how Ben is doing and she’s kept him in the loop about class activities.
Pompoms and riddles
Mr. Grant’s bus on Friday afternoon was filled with heart-shaped balloons and handmade Valentines and great anticipation as it rolled towards Ben’s house.
“We made posters for him,” said classmate Ann Vo. “We also created a cheer.”
Ann said she doesn’t know Ben well since she just moved to Guilderland this summer but she likes him and is eager to make him happy.
“I’m one of the cheerleaders,” she said proudly and recited the cheer.
“We’re either wearing jeans or black pants and white or pink tops,” said Ann, describing the cheerleaders’ outfits. Ann was wearing a pink top. She explained with poise beyond her nine years, “I’m Vietnamese. In my culture, wearing white is for death.”
Her parents, she explained, “moved here because of the war. The north won, just like the Civil War.”
Ann speaks both Vietnamese and English and loves to read.
She and her classmates worked on their performances for four days, she said the girls on original cheers and the boys on jokes for Ben.
“He’s going to give us Valentines, too,” said Ann with a wide smile on her face.
After the bus stopped, events unfolded just as Ann had described them. The handmade banners were unfurled in crisp air under brilliant sun. Ben was presented with a pillow in the shape of a heart. It was made of fabric covered with the Yankees logo Ben’s favorite team.
“It’s stuffed with love,” said Mrs. DeLuca since each of Ben’s classmates had helped to fill it.
The girls grabbed their pompoms and stood just inside the Grants’ garage door to chant, “Be our Valentine. You‘ll be the one to shine. Don’t you ever decline. Just be our Valentine.”
Their performance ended with cartwheels and splits.
Next, the boys took to the garage stage for a more subdued performance. They looked slyly at file cards as one after another they told their jokes.
“Why did the boy jump up and down on his letter?”
“Because he had to have a stamp on it.”
Or: “Why is a Valentine cake like a baseball game?”
“They both need a good batter.”
Another: “What did the stamp say to the envelope?”
“I’m really attracted to you.”
Some of the jokes were greeted with gales of giggles, others with cries of “Oh, no!” or howls of laughter.
Ben just kept smiling. He then handed out his own Valentines, calling out the name of each classmate.
“He’s just a happy kid,” said Mrs. Grant as she watched the festivities. “He’s so full of life. At the hospital, when the nurse had difficulty drawing blood from Ben’s port, he said, ‘It’s OK. I will do whatever it takes.’”
Mrs. Grant posts regular entries about Ben’s progress online at caringbridge.org/visit/benjamingrant, a site set up by his 24-year-old sister, Amber. Friends can add their words of encouragement.
On Feb. 11, Ben’s mother wrote about how Mrs. DeLuca tutored Ben. “Ben also worked on doing his Valentines for his classmates...,” she wrote. “He was really into doing them and they are complete.”
Ben also posts news on the site. On Feb. 5, he wrote with clear-sighted honesty, and not an ounce of self-pity, “Today we went for treatment; it was not fun, like always....
“I had an allergic reaction from a medicine....They gave me the medicine and my body felt hot, stingy and painful. I started coughing and coughing and my dad got me a bucket and I started puking out gooey stuff. So a couple of nurses and doctors came running in the room and quickly gave me a different medicine and I felt a lot better...
“I want to tell you about my grandpa. He died yesterday....He was my dad’s dad. He was sick for a long time. My grandpa would always give me Hershey Kisses. I miss him.”
“Brought them closer”
On the bus ride back to school Friday, spirits were high. Ryan Porter, who said he had been good friends with Ben since second grade, said he could tell his friend had liked the visit.
The two boys share a passion for baseball. They both play on a Pine Bush Little League team coached by Ryan’s father.
Ryan said it made him feel good to be able to celebrate Ben.
Another friend, Matt Bruno, said he misses Ben at school. “We gave each other high fives every day,” he said wistfully.
“He seemed like he wanted to go to school,” said Matt.
Indeed, as Ben’s classmates got on the bus to go back to Westmere Elementary, Ben had followed them aboard and had to be coaxed off by his father.
“They can see he’s the same old Ben...It’s not so scary,” said Mrs. DeLuca. “It brought them closer.”