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Teachers’ challenge inspires community service

One student raises over $500 first week to help patients needing bone marrow transplant


What does Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., a team of teachers in Rockford and Cedar Springs Public Schools, and some very ambitious fourth graders have in common? They want to “be the change they wish to see in the world,” as quoted by Gandhi, the preeminent leader of Indian nationalism in British-ruled India (1869-1948).

Tyler VanderLaan with his sister, Nyla, the inspiration behind his fundraising.

Tyler VanderLaan with his sister, Nyla, the inspiration behind his fundraising.

For the past four years, Rockford Public Schools teachers Gail Falcinelli, Tim Woznick and Luanne Helsen have teamed up with Gail’s daughter, Lisa Falcinelli, who teaches 4th graders at Cedar View Elementary in Cedar Springs. The teachers kick off a project on Martin Luther King Day based on the classic children’s book, Martin’s Big Words, by Doreen Rappaport. Using quotes from some of his beloved speeches, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., comes to life for the students, inspiring them to step outside themselves and make a difference in someone’s life.

But this life lesson project goes far beyond Face Time with their book buddies and blogging. To help the students understand how blessed they are, while gently exposing them to how much need there is locally and globally, the teachers give each student $2 and encourage them to use the money to help someone. Students enthusiastically dive in, opening their eyes to the vast needs in their community. Hunger, illness, homelessness, struggling veterans and isolated older adults and that’s just for starters. Next comes the hard work—creating cards for hospital patients, visiting senior centers, donating to food banks, and brainstorming on how to grow their teachers’ cash for greater impact. In the process, the students are taught a third lesson: humility. Each approaches their project in a different way, as they learn their perspective and background guides them on their course of action.

Tyler Vander Laan, 10, formerly a Cedar View Elementary student and now a fourth grader at Parkside Elementary in Rockford, decided he wanted to use his teacher’s $2 investment to help the organization that gave his newborn baby sister life-saving blood hours after her birth. Tyler, the son of Brian and Leda Vander Laan, of Courtland Township, asked his mother if there was a way to help Michigan Blood. Leda encouraged Tyler to share his story with others and ask them to consider making a donation to Michigan Blood’s Bone Marrow/Stem Cell Program so that patients needing a transplant to fight leukemia, lymphoma and 70 other blood related disorders could hopefully find a match through Michigan Blood’s affiliated Be the Match® Registry.

Each year 10,000 people turn the Registry for a potential match; 4 out of 10 find a match, despite 10 million potential donors on the Registry. The way to help more people find a lifesaving bone marrow transplant match is to add more people to the Registry. Tyler’s goal was to raise $500 to help underwrite testing for additional people to join the Registry. (The average cost of testing is $100/Registrant).

Within one day, Tyler surpassed his goal and raised over $600—then quickly raised his goal to $1000. Tyler created a custom Team Be the Match page and emailed a link to his page out to family members and friends asking them to support his fundraising/life-saving efforts. http://www.bethematchfoundation.org/goto/2dollarchallenge

When Tyler visited Michigan Blood’s donor center at 1036 Fuller Avenue in Grand Rapids on January 29, 2013, he went for a tour and learned more about the importance of the program he is supporting. He also brought along his now 8-year-old sister Nyla, mom Leda, and the classroom mascot, James the chameleon. Tyler may have had a bit of trouble wrapping his brain around 10 million people on a registry and still only 40 percent find a lifesaving match, but he loved sharing how awesome his teachers are and the neat things his classmates are doing. He also is looking forward to the television news program they will shoot the third week of February and share with their book buddies in their partner classroom. This Today Show-like broadcast is a much-anticipated celebration of all the students have accomplished.

Tyler was also at the Rockford Ice Festival on Saturday, February 9 at the RE/MAX United booth. RE/MAX United is donating the proceeds from the hot chocolate served.

Tyler’s goal was to raise $1000 by February 13, 2013. At press time yesterday, he had raised $845.

For more information about Michigan Blood’s Marrow/Stem Cell Programs and how to join the National Be the Match Registry, contact Kona Dominick at 616.233.8516 or check out www.miblood.org/marrow.


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