By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special To The Bulletin | Published January 17, 2008
Ana Pariselli’s own bout with cancer has led her to create “Afghans for Angels,” a blanket ministry for children tackling the illness. Family members as well as colleagues and friends from the St. Pius X High School community bolster her efforts.
“I am an ovarian cancer survivor,” said Pariselli, who was diagnosed March 21, 2003, after undergoing the surgical removal of a fibroid tumor.
She waded through the morass of chemotherapy.
“When I went for chemo it would be in a very, very cold room,” she recalled. “I always needed a blanket. When I reached the point of recovery and was in remission, I realized it was time to give back.”
Not long after, she settled upon the idea of knitting blankets for children who must endure the prolonged treatment so young.
“As adults we deal with it, but to see a child with cancer breaks your heart—what they have to go through. Our focus then has been to do something for the kids.”
Pariselli, the registrar at St. Pius, conferred with Marsha Free, the principal’s secretary and an avid knitter, to plan the blankets that are comprised of 16 knitted squares, each measuring 7 inches by 9 inches.
“Each one has its own personality,” Pariselli explained. “None is the same.”
Before long, other faculty and staff members joined in to support the cause.
“Six of us knit at lunch instead of eat,” said Pariselli, joking that keeping their knitting needles in motion benefits their diets. She also called upon her son, Peter, a St. Pius and Georgia Tech graduate. “He was so supportive of what I was doing. He said he would come up with a prayer.”
The prayer would accompany each blanket, which would also receive a blessing from Msgr. Richard Lopez, a St. Pius theology teacher.
Prayer is the “best method” of helping, Peter explained, adding that receiving something physical, like the blankets, also is a tangible, ongoing reminder “to show we care, to show God that we truly wish for his intercession for those who receive them.”
Peter was happy to help with writing the prayer as English was one of his favorite classes in high school.
“I always had a good ear for meter and verse.”
But early in the process Peter had something he needed to solve. “First I had to ask what an afghan was,” he said. “I thought it was a small hat.”
He was a good sport and attempted his own hand at knitting. “I tried but not with the best results.”
His youngest sister, however, is refining her technique by knitting scarves, he added.
He and his mother discussed what the prayer should say and he set off with the writing task, making sure the words were simple enough for children to understand. The finished piece now accompanies each afghan.
“It makes me feel good,” he said. “I just hope that even if they don’t remember the prayer they will have a blanket and know that someone cares about them, that someone actually took the time to make something for them, that it touches them. I hope that they will help the families to feel like they’re not alone and that their kids have an awesome new blanket.”
Peter spoke in an e-mail about the comfort he received as his mother received treatment for cancer. “Just knowing that others cared and were praying for my mom made me feel better. It was nothing physical, but I did relax and felt that my family will make it through intact and God was watching over us.”
Then a freshman at Georgia Tech, he spoke of the shock of learning that his mother had cancer.
“My mother is a large part of my life,” he said. “I guess all parents are seen as invincible to their kids. … She assured me that she was getting treatment, and I kept her in my prayers at the chapel at Georgia Tech.”
During those years he noticed a change in her. “When she recovered she was more spiritual. She had always been active in the church, but she became more active.”
Besides becoming a eucharistic minister, she formed the afghan ministry that also satisfies “her artistic side,” Peter added.
“She knits blankets for kids she has a common bond with; they share the experience of chemo. That touched me. That’s my mom.”
The experience of her own cancer has had a lasting impact on her husband of 29 years and particularly their three children, who have either taken up research, volunteer at the Ronald McDonald house or want to pursue nursing as a career.
“They had a rough patch of it,” said Pariselli, who is proud of the people her children are becoming. “The reward is that my kids are going into (medical and teaching) fields. I’m so proud of them. God makes everything come together. It proves that cancer is just a word. It doesn’t have to be your life.”
She met the surprise diagnosis of ovarian cancer—a cancer that “whispers” as it is so easily passed over—with resolve.
“My first reaction was ‘What do I need to do to fight?’” said Pariselli, who wears a turquoise pin to draw attention to ovarian cancer.
Msgr. Lopez conveyed the blessing of the sick on her. “I had an incredible sense of faith and peace, that I was taken care of. It was unbelievable.”
She leaned on the Blessed Mother during the trying times as “she was a mother who had to be strong.”
“My mantra was always and still is ‘Thank you, Jesus, for letting me be alive and please, Blessed Mother, let me be able to be a mother to my children today.’ I truly believe that this helped me deal with my nausea so I could get through each day.”
Through the course of treatment she never asked “why me?”
“I only cried when I lost an eyebrow,” she said, laughing. “I was devastated.”
She remains personally affected by the experience.
“I would never wish it for anyone but I am so grateful for the whole thing. Cancer teaches you. Vanity goes out the window.”
When she recovered she began to knit caps for other chemo patients, including St. Pius’ beloved Latin teacher, Stan Bird, who eventually succumbed to cancer. “At his funeral his wife came to me and said, ‘you have no idea what the caps meant to him.’ I thought what more can I do? I’ve got to do more.”
Now she is joined in her cause with others, particularly her St. Pius cohorts: Marsha Free, the principal’s secretary; Sandy Stogner, human resources; Mary Chamberlain, business manager; Robin Tanis, media services chairperson; Barbara Rowley, theology teacher; Janet Marsden, English teacher; and Tina Press, reception desk. Others that help to put together the afghans are Marylyn Tuura, accounts payable; Cindi Kramer, math teacher; and Kathy Greene, cafeteria moderator, along with Pat Fries, discipline secretary; Rachel Braham, dean of students; Sally King, book store manager; and Shirley Smith and Bina Cline, both parents of St. Pius students. Not long ago an 86-year-old woman sent in over 60 squares, Ana added.
Most recently, they presented 25 blankets to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Pediatric Intensive Care Unit benefiting ill children, one as young as 5 months old.
“Every stitch we do is for them.”
Anyone is welcome to send in knitted squares (7 inches by 9 inches) to St. Pius X High School, 2674 Johnson Road, NE, Atlanta, GA 30345, Attn: Ana Pariselli. The squares can be of any color or texture of yarn.