West Hartford Public Schools students, teachers and administrators, and those from local preschools and businesses, donated money to Connecticut Children’s Medical Center and in exchange got to wear their pajamas for the day on Friday.
By Ronni Newton
Every single public school in West Hartford participated in “PJ Day for the Kids” on Friday – with flannel, fleece, fuzzy slippers as the outfits du jour – but at Hall High School, the event had special meaning.
This is the seventh year that Connecticut Children’s Medical Center’s Hematology/Oncology Fund has benefitted from the PJ Day fundraiser. Hall math teacher Laura Nichols, whose son had surgery years ago at Connecticut Children’s and was given a room on the oncology floor, first brought the fundraiser to West Hartford last year, as a way to focus on doing something positive and giving back.
This year it hit very close to home for several families.
Hall Principal Dan Zittoun’s 6-year-old daughter, Abby, was recently diagnosed with the rare cancer esthesioneuroblastoma (ENB), and is being treated at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.
When she learned of Abby’s illness, Hall freshman Rylie Dagnall immediately knew what the family would be going through, and she and her mother reached out to Zittoun.
Dagnall also became one of organizers of PJ Day for the Kids at Hall.
When Dagnall was 6, at the end of kindergarten at Whiting Lane Elementary School, she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and began a lengthy regimen of chemotherapy.
She said she was very sad to miss the end of her kindergarten year, and much of first grade as well. “I loved school. I had a great group of friends who came and visited me in the hospital,” she recalled.
When she was able to go to school. Dagnall’s activities were limited. “I couldn’t do recess or gym, or go on field trips,” she said. She had to be careful because she had a port for the chemo medication.
Dagnall’s treatment at Connecticut Children’s lasted through the end of third grade, and she said she still goes back once a year for blood tests, and is now healthy.
Today Dagnall has beautiful long, thick, red hair. She said her mom had saved a lock of it to see if it came back the same color after treatment caused it to fall out. “It stayed the exact same color,” she said, but instead of stick straight it grew back curly – which is common right after chemo – and stayed curly.
Dagnall has been helping raise money for Connecticut Children’s since the early days of her illness. She said that right before the treatment was going to cause her to lose her hair, she went to her mother’s hair salon to get it cut off. The salon held a fundraiser, and many of Dagnall’s friends came and got haircuts for the cost of a donation to Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.
While getting treatment at Connecticut Children’s and through attending the Hole in the Wall Camp, Dagnall said she got to Nick and Charlotte Wesoloskie of Coventry. Charlotte had been diagnosed with cancer when she was three days old, and her older brother Nick started PJ Day in 2011, as a way to help his sister and to be in solidarity with the kids in the hospital who wear their pajamas all day, every day.
As an eighth-grader at King Philip last year, Dagnall said she and another cancer survivor helped organize a very successful PJ Day that raised about $1,900 – the most any school in the state raised in one day for the event, she said.
There was no question she would get involved in the event at Hall this year. “I’m in the Relay for Life Club, and I wanted to be involved with PJ Day this year,” she said. She reached out to all of her friends, encouraging them to donate at least $1, even if they decided they wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing their PJs. By lunchtime she personally had $50 in donations.
Although not everyone at Hall knows what Dagnell went through, when she tells them they feel a personal connection to the fundraiser.
Dagnall and Nichols estimated that 70 percent of Hall students, and many of the teachers, were wearing PJs on Friday. Some wore just flannel pants, but others really got into it. There was one girl in a dragon onesie and someone else in a velvet robe and slippers, Nichols said.
Nichols said that she’s grateful that she hasn’t traveled the path of cancer treatment with her own children, and said it’s great to see how healthy Dagnall is today. But seeing the kids in treatment is eye-opening. “When we complain about things, usually it’s really minor compared to what they are going through,” she said.
PJ Day for the Kids has grown even larger this year, and in West Hartford there was participation from all of the town’s public schools, many preschools, pediatricians, and employees at several Dunkin Donuts locations.
The fundraiser has become a state-wide event. Last year the state legislature last year designated the second Friday in December as PJ Day for the Kids, Nichols said. There’s also a Facebook group.
When Dagnall solicited the help and advice of Relay for Life Club faculty advisor Nicola Culmo for PJ Day, Culmo had another idea.
Zittoun would be at the hospital that day with Abby, who was scheduled for treatment. Culmo created a message of support for her.
At 2 p.m. the entire Hall community, still dressed in PJs, gathered in formation in the gym, spelling out “ABBY.” After posing for a photo, they broke into a dance party to the tune of “Get Back Up Again” from the soundtrack to the movie “Trolls” – Abby’s favorite song. Teacher Scott Sampietro videotaped the entire thing, and sent it to the Zittouns.
Hall’s support of Abby Zittoun will continue through the Relay for Life Club. Anatomy/physiology and chemistry teacher Nora McHugh, who is one of the club’s advisors, said that this year the club’s team is called “Warriors for a Cure Team Abby.”
Sales of the pink camouflage “Team Abby” t-shirts have already topped $700, and the club, which raises funds all year leading up to the June relay event, has in the past netted more than $10,000.
The American Cancer Society has approved allocating all of Hall’s donations directly to ENB, McHugh said.
The total raised from PJ Day in West Hartford will take at least a few more days to tabulate, but late Friday afternoon McHugh said she had about $1,000 that had been collected during the school day just at Hall. That’s in addition to what Nichols estimates is at least $1,775 donated online, just from those associated with Hall.
Nichols said Sunday afternoon that “early indications are that West Hartford Public Schools will easily surpass the $11,000 we raised last year.”
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