St. Joseph students collect hats for cancer-stricken children

By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff

FAIRHAVEN, Mass. — When Chance Silvera, a seventh-grade student at St. Joseph’s School in Fairhaven, learned that a young boy from Leominster named Caiden Falcon had been diagnosed with cancer at just five months old and eventually succumbed to the disease, he felt compelled to do something.

“I felt bad for the family, knowing that they had to go through that — seeing their child dying from cancer,” Silvera said. “I felt really bad about a child who had to battle something so young, and I wanted to do something about it.”

Since Thanksgiving, Silvera and his classmates have been hard at work collecting hats of all styles, shapes and sizes to donate to children who have been stricken with cancer. It is said the young patients — many of whom are the same age or younger than those spearheading the campaign — take great comfort in getting a unique hat to cover the hair loss that so often results from cancer treatments.

The ongoing hat collection drive has become something of a pet project for the seventh-graders and it all began when their homeroom teacher, Misti Nordstrom, first told them about little Caiden’s story.

“The project started when a friend of mine, Jillian Zucco, who is currently Miss Massachusetts, posted something on social media about this little angel who had lost his battle with cancer,” Nordstrom told The Anchor. “It was really just sad and upsetting, so I messaged her and told her that I would have our students and school pray for this little boy. Then, as I thought about it, I felt that our school would want to do a little more.”

Given Caiden’s fondness for funny and cute hats, his family established Caiden’s Crusaders to collect hats in his name to be donated to children battling cancer at Boston’s Children’s Hospital and New York’s Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

“I shared the story with my class and I showed them a video (of Caiden) and, of course, you could tell they were impacted (by it) — you could see it in their faces,” Nordstrom said. “I asked them if they would like to lead the school and the community in (a hat drive), and they were really happy to do that.”

The modest effort soon took on a life of its own as the entire school became involved, then it extended to parishioners at St. Joseph’s Church, and eventually to others in the community.

“I wanted the class to see that it just takes one person to try to inspire other people and that they have a lot of power, even though they are young, and they can make a difference,” Nordstrom said. “I think the importance of community service at this age is invaluable. If they can recognize how good it feels to help those in need, it empowers them and helps them recognize that they have a voice.”

The students have taken it upon themselves to go to other classrooms to talk up the project, they’ve gone around personally collecting hats in the community, and they’ve kept close track of the incoming donations which Nordstrom estimates to be “in the hundreds.”

“They’ve pretty much watched over everything and it’s been really nice to see them take on that responsibility and leadership,” she said.

Now a campaign that Nordstrom originally expected to last through Advent has extended well into the new year and will end on February 14.

“We decided to extend it through Valentine’s Day, because we still have people wanting to bring in hats, and we’ve had some people who are knitting and crocheting the hats, and that takes some time, so we figured by Valentine’s Day we can collect them all, pack them up, and ship them,” she said.

While prayers and get well cards are helpful, Nordstrom said there’s something special about receiving a one-of-a-kind hat.

“Well, you may think it’s just a hat, but when someone’s in the hospital, any little thing can brighten their day and knowing that something came from another child is really powerful,” she said. “We have hats in all sizes, from infant to adult. That helps you understand that cancer doesn’t choose a person based on their age or family or religion.”

Seventh-grader Aleena Armstrong can attest to the fact that cancer can strike anyone at anytime. Two of her family members were recently diagnosed with the disease.

“My stepmother’s mother had cancer and she lost all of her hair, so she really appreciated it when she got hats,” Armstrong said. “My uncle also has cancer and has lost some of his hair and he wears hats a lot, too. So I felt a personal connection with this project, because I know what it’s like for someone to go through.”

Her classmate, Brenna Haward, said she’s proud of their collection efforts and she hopes the donations will let the young patients know there are people who care about them and they are loved.

“I think it’s good to let them know that God didn’t forget about them and there’s hope for them,” she said.

“That’s what Jesus would want us to do — to help out,” agreed student Ava Costa. “Being a Catholic school, working together is a big part of it, especially doing something for a little boy with cancer. It doesn’t take a lot to do something good.”

Nordstrom said teen-agers are often wrongly dismissed as being indifferent or disconnected from the real world, but she said you’d be surprised to learn how compassionate they can be.

“They sometimes get the reputation that they don’t care about what’s going on in their community, or that they’re complacent, and I don’t think that’s true,” she said. “I think they just need to be shown the way and there’s nothing more powerful than seeing a young baby with a beautiful smile and to see his family go through that loss.

“A lot of the kids have mentioned to me that they can’t understand how a baby would have to suffer something like that. I think when they saw the video of him laughing and playing, just like a normal little baby, to know that no one is really exempt from dealing with pain and suffering and they were definitely very sad to learn he passed away.”

As Nordstrom helped students sort through the latest box brimming with nearly 200 donated hats, it was clear they had a sense of pride and had taken ownership of the project.

“We want this to be instilled in them for their whole life,” Nordstrom said. “Community service is not just something your read about in a textbook or something you do for religion class. They need to see there are things they can do and something small can become something big. It’s nice to see the trickle effect and how it kind of spreads. I hope this is an experience they’ll want to continue.”

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