by Karen Murphy Corr, Contributor
On Tuesday morning, nearly 500 brightly coloured balloons danced into the grey skies over west Abbotsford, their cheerful journey poetically intended to bring joy to a teenager fighting cancer for the third time.
Josh, a 14-year-old student at St. John Brebeuf Secondary School, was first diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma in December 2009. When the tumour grew back under his cheekbone last year, the BC Lions participated in a fundraiser at the Catholic high school to offset the costs of Josh travelling to the United States for surgery and treatment.
Unfortunately, the tumour has returned and Josh is once again undergoing chemotherapy treatments.
“He is mentally doing really wonderful. He does not dwell much about it, so we really don’t talk much about treatment until the day before when I have to start giving him his anti-nausea meds,” said his mother Cheryle, who asked that the family’s last name not be published.
“As long as he has his laptop and Xbox, he is pretty much just a regular teenager.”
The balloon release was organized by Ruth Ann and Lou Penner, long-time family friends. They acquired biodegradable balloons and strings – even checking in with Environment Canada, city bylaw officers and the Abbotsford Airport to ensure the release would be environmentally friendly and safe for the aircraft not too far from the high school on Townline Road.
“I really wanted to do something to bring a lift to Josh’s heart, his spirit. I wish I could take his cancer away, but I can’t,” said Ruth Ann Penner, whose colleagues from Corrections Canada volunteered to help fill the balloons with helium. “I want him to know that all of us are praying for him – that every one of those balloons is for him and for every other kid out there battling cancer.”
While some people suggested the money for the balloons might have been better spent paying for food or gas as the family travels to and from BC Children’s Hospital, Ruth Ann defended this gesture as necessary.
“We have been fundraising and will continue to fundraise because not all expenses are covered when a child is sick, and parents don’t get unlimited paid time off work. But this is not about the money. This is about showing Josh how many of us are praying for him and so proud of his courage. ”
Principal Ted Brennan said it was easy to agree to student and staff participation: “The school is extremely proud of Josh and his courage and the releasing of the balloons is a small sign to let him and his family know that we are with him on his difficult journey ahead.”
Students were led in prayer for Josh and his family over the school sound system before taking the balloons from the school lobby outside. Josh, wearing his school uniform, was delighted by the elaborate surprise.
When everyone released the balloons as a group, Josh stood smiling with his family, and children at the adjacent St. James and St. Ann’s elementary school gathered in the windows to watch. As the hundreds of balloons rose and drifted in defiance of the gathering storm clouds, everyone cheered and laughed.
“All the prayers mean so much,” said Josh, smiling and holding the leash of his new dog named Hope.
Anyone who would like to donate to offset the costs of traveling for treatment to and from BCCH may contribute funds to TD Canada Trust #6074116 or send gas other gift cards to Josh care of St. John Brebeuf Secondary School, 2747 Townline Rd.