By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published November 28, 2019
FAYETTEVILLE—“Midas Touch” was the theme of the Our Lady of Mercy High School’s homecoming, with gold balloons and streamers transforming the cafeteria into a dance hall. The fall celebration also served as a way for students to touch the lives of youngsters undergoing treatment for cancer.
Fueled by an idea of junior Danielle Garger, students and staff at the Fayetteville school raised money for Camp Sunshine. At its summer camp, young people with cancer are surrounded by others like them in an atmosphere of fun and support.
The work to help youngsters at Camp Sunshine was personal for Garger. Her older sister, Lauren, attended the camp starting at age 7 after undergoing cancer treatments and later returned as a counselor.
Garger herself attended family programs. “They do so much to make (the children) feel normal,” she said.
In 2018, more than 7,600 people took part in the programs offered by Camp Sunshine ranging from junior camper activities to bereavement services.
“The devastation of childhood cancer takes people so often, and awareness isn’t spread as much as other forms of cancer,” Garger said.
Doing small things with big effects
For her work, Garger earned the Youth Virtues, Valor and Vision Award from the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA).
The Newnan resident was one of 10 recipients for the 2020 national prize. The award recognizes “extraordinary young people in our Catholic schools who through their selfless service, innovation and commitment to social justice are changing the world.”
The award came as a surprise for Garger, knowing the accomplishments of her award-winning peers. The unexpected recognition shows how people can shape their communities following the example of St. Therese of Lisieux, one of Garger’s favorite saints.
This effort alone won’t cure cancer but allowed many students to lift up others and help young people who have to live with cancer’s effects. Danielle said it is about “doing small things, with great love.”
“I tend to reflect on her ‘little way’ when in charge of projects, such as this,” she said of St. Therese’s influence.
Persistence paid off
Garger is a leader in student government at Our Lady of Mercy. The 17-year-old is also preparing for her role as Wednesday Addams in the school’s spring performance of “The Addams Family.” She plays on the school’s volleyball team.
At Holy Trinity Church, Peachtree City, Garger sings with the Life Teen band and serves in other roles.
Garger lives in Newnan with her mother, Heather, who leads youth ministry at the Peachtree City parish. Her sister attends college. Her father died in a car crash when she was 5.
Now a college sophomore, Lauren Garger has lived 12 years with no evidence of the disease. Speaking from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, Lauren said she wasn’t surprised by her sister’s actions and called Danielle “the most inspiring and passionate person I’ve ever met.”
Lauren was 5 when she began treatment for a rare form of cancer, with treatment followed by relapse followed by another year of chemotherapy. Overall, she received about 18 months of treatment.
Mercy students should know every donation, large or small, helps young people served by Camp Sunshine in beautiful ways, said Lauren, a member of the class of 2018. She also started a tradition to raise awareness of cancer at the school during her time on campus.
Ana De Mello, a Mercy math teacher, said Danielle Garger’s persistence created the successful homecoming event.
“She did everything that needed to happen. She is a remarkable leader,” she said.
Garger realized the week of homecoming in September coincided with Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. After permission from school administration, students agreed with her to tie homecoming to the month’s observance.
Camp Sunshine’s focus is serving children diagnosed with cancer and their families. In Georgia, between 2004 and 2015, there were some 5,300 incidences of cancer for patients under the age of 20. Southern states had the lowest incidence rate in the country, according to a government report.
The idea was to incorporate gold—the color associated with childhood cancer awareness— in the school event. Out of student’s brainstorming came the dance and week’s theme: “Midas Touch.”
Bobcats show support
Part of it would be a “gold out” encouraging students and staff to show their support of the campaign at the biggest football game of the season for the Bobcats and build up school spirit leading to the dance. They sold gold T-shirts for $13 apiece. Garger feared the higher than usual price would keep students from pulling out their wallets. Word went out throughout the week what the sales would do for children facing cancer treatment. She set her sights on selling about 50 shirts. But the sales kept coming in.
That night, at the football game, Garger realized what she and the student government were able to do.
“Everyone came and they were wearing these bright yellow shirts. From both sides of the stadium, you can obviously see that it was a gold out,” she said. “And we announced at the pep rally how much money we made and why that was so important.”
At the end, 105 shirts imprinted with “Fight Like a Kid” were sold to the student body of about 200. After paying off the vendor for the shirts, a check in the amount of $560 was written to Camp Sunshine.
Garger said the money may not seem like a lot, but it is close to covering the cost for a young person to attend Camp Sunshine for a week and change his or her life.