West Hartford Public Schools students, teachers, and administrators donated money to Connecticut Children’s Medical Center and in exchange got to wear their pajamas for the day. [Updated]
By Ronni Newton
Flannel, fleece, and fuzzy slippers were the “outfits of the day” throughout West Hartford Public Schools on a recent Friday, but the comfy attire was not due to laziness but instead the theme for a fundraiser for Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.
“This is really a privilege. We’re wearing PJs today because some children wear PJs all day because they’re not feeling well,” Duffy Elementary School kindergarten teacher Noreen Cavanaugh told her students.
This is the eighth year that Connecticut Children’s Medical Center has benefited from the PJ Day for the Kids event. Hall math teacher Laura Nichols, whose son had surgery years ago at Connecticut Children’s and was given a room on the oncology floor, worked to expand the fundraiser to all West Hartford Public Schools two years ago, as a way to focus on doing something positive and giving back. When she was a seventh-grader in 2014, Rylie Dagnall, now a sophomore at Hall High School, organized West Hartford’s first PJ Day for the Kids at King Philip Middle School.
In December 2017, PJ Day was held in all of West Hartford’s Public Schools, as it was on Dec. 14, 2018. In some of the schools, the day took on added significance.
Fourth-grader Kiley Sullivan, 9, sat in the front of Cavanaugh’s class with a pile of books, ready to read aloud to the younger children. Kiley had Cavanaugh as a teacher when she was in kindergarten at Duffy, but that year she only made it to school for 10 days.
Kiley was diagnosed with the rare childhood cancer Alveolar Rhabdomyosarcoma just two weeks after her fifth birthday in April 2014, when she was still a pre-schooler. She spent countless days at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center receiving treatment.
“Mrs. Cavanaugh used to come to the hospital and read to her,” said Emily Sullivan, Kiley’s mom, who also wore PJs and beamed as she listened to her daughter read aloud words like “preposterous” in one of the books she had chosen. “It was really helpful for Kiley to feel like she was part of the class.”
Now Kiley takes gymnastics at Farmington Valley Gymnastics Center after school. She is doing really well, Emily Sullivan said, although she still has to have her port flushed out weekly at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, and receives daily maintenance drugs and scans every three months.
The kindergartners erupted into giggles as Kiley and her friend, fellow fourth-grader Reagan Keany, read a particularly silly sentence in one of the books.
The day also had special significance for Reagan, who had leukemia as a baby. Emily Sullivan said that the Keany family delivers Thanksgiving dinner to Connecticut Children’s Medical Center every year to show their appreciation.
While the girls were reading, Adam Rivers from radio station KC101 stopped by the classroom to visit. He had just delivered a donation of doughnuts, coffee, bagels, and muffins from Dunkin Donuts to the school.
“I feel very special,” Kiley said after having the chance to read to Cavanaugh’s class. Then she sprinted away down the hallway to join her class at lunch.
Emily Sullivan said that her other daughter, Allie, is an eight-grader at Sedgwick Middle School, and was also participating in PJ Day.
Across town at Hall High School, PJ Day also had special significance for Dagnall and Cayden Goldberg, both sophomores and childhood cancer survivors. For Principal Dan Zittoun, whose 7-year-old daughter, Abby, was diagnosed with the rare cancer esthesioneuroblastoma (ENB) in 2016, the day also held special meaning.
As a freshman last year, Dagnall helped organize PJ Day for the Kids at Hall, after organizing the event the previous two years at King Philip Middle School.
This year, she said, the school seemed even more involved. “Not a lot of the kids knew [I was a cancer survivor], but once I told people I think they wanted to be more involved, especially after Mr. Zittoun’s daughter was diagnosed,” Dagnall said.
“Some of my teachers are survivors themselves, and I think they wanted to get involved,” she said.
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 missed the end of her kindergarten year, and much of first grade as well, but was happy to have many good friends who visited her at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.
She’s healthy now, and continues to raise money for Connecticut Children’s, something she has done since the early days of her illness.
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.
Goldberg was diagnosed with neuroblastoma when he was 6 months old. He said that had surgery and chemotherapy, and received treatment until he was 5 or 6 years old.
Dagnall and Goldberg are now both part of the Reach for the STARS Survivorship Program at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. They continue to receive guidance and support, as well as coaching on how to remain as healthy as possible.
Both Dagnall and Goldberg participate in Cycle for Life and Relay for Life, and have been involved with other fundraisers for Connecticut Children’s as well.
“It feels great to be able to be hear, to be able to participate, to have benefitted from the amazing work at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center,” Zittoun said. “And what’s amazing is that Abby is in school today wearing her PJs.”
Abby is now a second-grader in elementary school in Simsbury. Zittoun said she is cancer free, back at school full-time, playing basketball and attending dance class. “Everything a regular 7-year-old would do,” he said.
“It’s nice to have two wonderful role models in the school to give hope,” Zittoun said of Dagnall and Goldberg.
All of the students who participated in PJ Day for the Kids were called down to the gym just before the end of the day. Nichols, and other teachers who helped organize the event, had placed markers on the floor, and herded the students into place where they spelled out “CCMC.”
“We’re showing our support for all of the kids at CCMC,” Zittoun said.
“I got some really nice feedback from staff a the elementary schools about how much they loved it and how they involved their youngest students in making posters, making announcements, collecting money etc.,” said Nichols. There was active participation by students and staff throughout the district.
Last year’s PJ Day for the Kids in West Hartford Public Schools raised more than $10,000. Totals for this year were still being tabulated, but at Duffy alone donations to PJ Day for the Kids totaled were $1,073.54, office staff reported.
In an update provided after the first version of this story was published, Nichols said that West Hartford Public Schools has raised nearly $12,400 this year through PJ Day. Online donations are still trickling in, she said, and additional donations can be made here.
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