Five-year-old inspires as school rallies

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Proud participant: Dylon Conboy stands on the Westmere Elementary School stage Tuesday, holding a dollar sign to help show how much his school raised for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Dylan was diagnosed with leukemia just before his third birthday. He likes going to kindergarten and has shared facts about the disease and his treatment with his classmates.

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Taking it in: A Westmere Elementary student pays rapt attention during a school assembly on Tuesday.

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

On stage: Westmere Elementary students display posters that show how much money the school raised, in loose change, to donate to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. At the far left is kindergartner Dylon Conboy who is being treated for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Next to him is his supportive brother, Brady, a second-grader at Westmere. 

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Kid power: Beth Bini, principal at Westmere Elementary School, right, presents a $3,261.06 check to Brandy Farber of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society at a school assembly on Tuesday morning. The funds were raised in a “Pennies for Patients” campaign. “This shows kids they can be powerful,” said Bini. “They can make a difference.”

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

It’s a record: Brandy Farber of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society tells the kids at Westmere Elementary School Tuesday that the more than $3,000 they raised tops any single group’s contribution this year.

GUILDERLAND — With Thanksgiving on the horizon, the kindergartners in Amy McFarren’s class told each other what they were thankful for.

Five-year-old Dylon Conboy told his classmates, “I’m thankful my Daddy donated platelets to kids that need them.”

Dylon knows about illness and about generosity.

The day before his third birthday, he was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, known as ALL, in which white blood cells multiply in bone marrow, forcing out normal cells.

He had a fever that day, his mother recalls, and she had taken him to the family’s pediatrician, thinking it was an ear infection. He was sent to Albany Medical Center where blood tests made the diagnosis.

“They started chemo immediately,” said his mother, Jazz Conboy. “By the time he’s done, he’ll have had three years and three months of chemo. The first eight months were really difficult.”

Now Dylon is on “long-term maintenance,” she said, which consists of chemo every day at home, chemo once a month intravenously at the hospital, and every third month a spinal tap with chemo.

“In an odd way,” said Mrs. Conboy, “he doesn’t know life any differently…This is his world.”

She said that Dylon likes watching a YouTube video made at the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, where young patients — some in bed, one in a wagon, many hooked up to IVs — sing along to Katy Perry’s “Roar”: “I’ve got the eye of the tiger…the fire…You’re going to hear me roar…I went from zero to my own hero…I am the champion…You’re going to hear me roar.”

“I cry my eyes out,” she said, when she watches the video. “He loves it and smiles. He sees kids just like him.”

Jazz Conboy and her husband, Jim, haven’t tried to hide Dylon’s disease from him. “He knows he has cancer,” said his mother. “He knows more medical terms than any child his age.” Yet, she said, “He doesn’t recognize what it means.”

Dylon and his family — his mother and father and his brother, second-grader Brady — have gotten involved in fund-raisers for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. “We always say we’re helping other kids that are sick like Dylon,” said Mrs. Conboy.

Brady was just 4 when Dylon was diagnosed, and has been to the hospital with his brother and seen him “getting stuck with needles and how scary it is,” said their mother.

Brady was a team captain for a recent fund-raising walk and, on Tuesday, he was on stage at Westmere Elementary School, right beside his brother.

“Pennies for Patients”

Tuesday’s school assembly was the culmination of weeks of work that felt like joy.

When McFarren found out Dylon would be in her class she asked his parents, whom she knew, having taught Brady, what she could do. Mrs. Conboy suggested getting in touch with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, where she contacted Brandy Farber.

Working with the school’s principal, Beth Bini, and colleagues Stephanie Brennan and Sarah Richardson, McFarren set up a “Pennies for Patients” campaign.

Westmere students were given small cartons in which they could collect loose change. Some of them did extra chores to earn money, she said; others scavenged behind couch and car cushions.

Each classroom had a collection box.  The Olive Garden restaurant participates in these fund drives, McFarren said, and offers a party with a free meal to the group that raises the most.

“We didn’t want to pit classes against each other,” said McFarren. “We wanted to work together as a community.” So, instead, the school is donating the party, which will be held in a decorated room at Westmere Elementary, to the Conboy family.

“They are a truly amazing and loving family,” said McFarren, adding she hopes they enjoy the respite.

Organizers originally hoped they might raise $1,000 for the society during a three-week drive. “In the first week alone, we raised over $1,200. We were shocked,” said McFarren.

Dr. Bini, the principal, served as the banker, taking the funds to her bank for safekeeping.

“Change is heavy,” Bini said. “One class was so excited, they weighed the box.” It tipped the scales at 15 pounds.

“I feel like I need a bodyguard,” quipped Bini. She also said, “I’m so proud. I tell the ladies at the bank, ‘I’ll be back.’”

The second week, about $750 was raised. Bini talked to The Enterprise after that and hoped the drive would top $2,000. “This money stays local for research purposes,” she said.

She also said, I’m hoping we have a big finale…This shows kids they can be powerful; they can make a difference.”

In the end, at Tuesday’s school assembly, nine kids stood on the stage. Each held a poster with a figure, their backs to the eager audience.

Dylon led the line-up, holding a dollar sign. The penny posters were revealed first — six cents. Then the decimal point, then, one by one, the dollar digits. The grand total: $3,261.06.

The crowd went wild as Bini presented a check for that amount to Farber.

And, McFarren said afterwards, money is still coming in.

Lessons learned

Among the lessons her students have learned, said McFarren, is that generosity can inspire others.

She told a story about a student in her class who came in with about $50. “She had brought her box to dinner at a restaurant, thinking Grandma might have some loose change,” said McFarren. The waiter overheard her plea and spread the word among the restaurant staff.

“The waiters and waitresses pooled their tip money and give her $40,” said McFarren. “There were all kinds of stories like that….It affected our whole school community. It was amazing to see how invested everyone was.”

McFarren said the experience was good for Dylon. “His mom said Dylon had not opened up about how he was feeling. He helped me explain…He got in front of the entire class and talked about what he goes through at the hospital and how the doctors help him.”

Dylon showed his kindergarten classmates the port he has in his chest for chemotherapy.

“It was very matter of fact,” said McFarren of the way Dylon talked to his classmates about having leukemia. “He put it in kid terms they could understand, like, ‘Sometimes I’m sick and I need to go to the hospital for medicine….I help the doctors take my blood.’”

Mrs. Conboy said she wishes she could have been “a fly on the wall” to hear Dylon talking that way to his classmates. She said she was very appreciative of the support Dylon has gotten from McFarren and the entire school.

“You can’t do it alone,” said Mrs. Conboy, who also praised the Melodies Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders at Albany Medical Center and the “kind and caring people” there, too.

Working with Dylon and his family, said McFarren, a veteran teacher, has reminded her why she first chose the profession.

“In a time of Common Core,” she said of new state standards, “it reminds me why I wanted to do this — I’m here for the kids. It’s not just teaching the academics but all of them.”

McFarren referred to an alphabet book she has read to her students, 26 Big Things Small Hands Do by Coleen Paratore, where kids learn their ABCs by applauding, building, and caring — and on through the alphabet.

“Little hands can make a world of difference,” McFarren said. “When we all worked together, we raised over $3,000.”

She also said, that, sometimes, when she’s teaching Dylon, “It’s so hard for me to not cry. He’s such a fighter, such a trouper. Lots of days, he’s tired — we keep extra snacks for him — but he pushes through.”

She admires the way the Conboy family pulls together. “I’ve seen pictures of Brady lying in a hospital bed with Dylon for support,” McFarren said.

“What a lesson this has been for all the kids,” she said of her 20 kindergarten pupils. “They’ve learned to be a good friend and to help others.”

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