By DAVE EISENSTADTER @DaveEisen
HADLEY — Fourth-grade Girl Scouts Troop 11644, engaged in a leadership project to change the world for the better, had made a decision to raise money to help ease the Ebola crisis. But when Hadley Elementary School student Sam Pollard died of a rare disease in March, they all changed their minds.
The Scouts instead are dedicating their fundraiser to their friend.
Wednesday after school, the girls — wearing T-shirts that read “I am strong. I am brave. I am a Girl Scout and I can change the world.” — met and talked about their fundraiser and the accompanying event called “Do It For Sam Day,” scheduled for June 8 at the school.
“We did this because we really like Sam,” Katelyn Kelley said.
“We knew that a lot of people really liked Sam and it could help them get through having Sam gone,” said fellow Scout Kasey Earle.
Sam was diagnosed with Ataxia Telangiectasia (A-T), a neurodegenerative disease, when he was 2½, and lost the ability to walk or focus his eyes due to his condition. His mother, Nina Pollard, said Sam struggled against cancer related to his condition in addition to other health problems, and died at the age of 11 of multiple organ failure.
A change in plans
The fundraiser is a part of the Leadership Journey program with the Girl Scouts, an activity that asks Scouts to work to change something in the world for the better, according to Girl Scout Troop 11644 co-leader Jo-Ann Konieczny.
“I think it is super exciting for the girls,” Konieczny said. “It’s a real opportunity for the girls to learn how to be active community members and run a philanthropic event and become good citizens. That is what Girl Scouts is about.”
The Scouts were planning to make tie-dyed T-shirts, sell them and donate the proceeds to an African organization working to fight Ebola, according to fourth-grader Alyssa Smith. That plan changed after Sam’s death.
Maya Wysk, a fifth-grade student who was in Sam’s class, said the last time she and many of her classmates saw Sam was in January. He looked sick, but Maya thought he would get better.
The girls said they liked Sam’s sense of humor and remembered his Halloween costume as “The Claw” from the Toy Story movies — an arcade crane that grabs toys.
The shirts were originally going to be multicolored, but when the girls switched to their idea for “Do It For Sam Day,” they changed the idea for the colors as well.
“Sam’s favorite color is red, so we’re just doing red shirts,” Tasia Stanley said, adding that they would still be tie-dye.
The money would now go to one of two places, either the Boston Children’s Hospital that treated Sam, or the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Ashford, Connecticut, he attended to have fun.
The girls chose the camp.
“We decided to give the money to the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp because that was a space he wanted to go to instead of a place he had to be,” fourth-grader Maria Konieczny said.
At Hole in the Wall, Sam was able to participate in all camp activities, despite his limited mobility. The camp is free and geared toward children with serious illnesses and their families. It was founded in 1988 by actor Paul Newman with the idea that every child, no matter their illness, should be able to access the experience and friendships of camp, according to the camp’s website.
Fourth-grade Scout Chloe Jekanowski said the camp had another donor who would double the money they raised and donate it to the camp. People from the camp will be coming to the school on June 8 and there will be a school assembly.
“June 8 is Do It For Sam Day and everyone will wear their tie-dye T-shirts,” fourth-grader Brooke Rochon said.
“We’ve already sold 160 and counting,” fellow Scout Brooke Weinman said.
‘He was special’
Nina Pollard, Sam’s mother, was at Wednesday’s meeting. She said the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp was Sam’s “raison d’etre,” and the feeling was mutual with the camp staff. He attended for four years.
“They loved Sam at camp,” she said. “They don’t have favorites, but Sam was incredible. He is a magnet. He was special.”
Pollard described her son as resilient and very funny. He started off walking and running like any child, but then the disease took those abilities away from him, she said.
“Sam had to sit on the outside, the periphery,” Pollard said. “He tried to make the best of it, but he couldn’t run or walk. He couldn’t do what everyone else does, everything that everyone else takes for granted.”
Camp counselors not only included Sam in activities ranging from building race cars at the wood shop to playing music, but also indulged him in his strange childhood desires, like playing with worms, Pollard said.
At home he loved to read, but near the end he was unable to focus his eyes to do so. Pollard then read out loud to him — that was how he experienced some of the Harry Potter books.
As Pollard walked down the hall of the Hadley Elementary School on Wednesday, she pointed out stickers of cats stuck to numerous lockers. All were tributes to Sam, who loved cats almost as much as he loved camp.
For Pollard and her husband, Kenneth Pollard, they are grieving the loss of their son. But Nina Pollard said she has felt supported by the community, as when what she said was half of Hadley, police and firefighters showed up to sing Christmas carols for Sam in December.
The Girl Scouts’ Do It For Sam Day project has made her feel supported, too, but she also understands it is important to the students to help them understand the loss of a friend.
Fourth-grader Izzy Palmisano summed up many of her fellow Scouts’ thoughts on the project.
“It feels good to know you’re helping people,” she said.
Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.