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West Aurora schools rally behind student battling a rare cancer

10 year old Leo Cardenas is suffering from rare form bone cancer areschools are all pitching help family with medical

10 year old Leo Cardenas is suffering from a rare form of bone cancer and area schools are all pitching in to help the family with the medical costs with a fundraiser being held at Lugi's Pizza and Fun Center in Aurora on Monday night. Here Leo poses for a portrait at his home in Aurora on Friday, November 30, 2012. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

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Fundraiser for Leo

What: All-you-can-eat pizza party

When: 5-7:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 3

Where: Luigi’s Pizza and Fun Center, 732 Prairie Street, Aurora

Tickets: $5 at the door

An account in Leonardo Cardenas’ name has also been set up at Bank of America, 2390 West Indian Trail, Aurora, IL. 60506. Account number 002912806727.

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Updated: January 3, 2013 6:16AM

There’s a wonderful lesson playing out this holiday season in the West Aurora School District — only, in this case, those doing the teaching are the children.

I first heard about it before Thanksgiving, when Andrea Arendt, a parent at Smith Elementary School called to tell me the fifth grade class was donating half the proceeds from a fundraiser for field trips to a young boy battling cancer. And the child wasn’t even a student at their school.

Ten-year-old Leonardo Cardenas goes to McCleery Elementary, but when the Smith crew heard about the rare form of bone cancer he’s fighting, they insisted on doing something to help.

As it turned out, so did the students from Hill Elementary.

And Hall Elementary.

Of course, students and staff at McCleery are also throwing in their support — with a fundraiser that will take place starting at 5 p.m. Monday at Luigi’s Pizza and Fun Center to raise money for Leo’s extraordinary medical costs.

Dorothy Johnson-Linner, Leo’s bilingual teacher at McCleery, has been “overwhelmed” by this lesson in generosity and compassion that is playing out across the district. It hit her especially hard when a small child approached her a few days ago and handed her a dollar bill for Leo. His family had no money to go to the pizza fundraiser, he told her, but he wanted to give something, and this was all he had.

Linner said she began to cry. Which she’s been doing a whole lot of since learning about Leo’s tumor — between golf ball and baseball size — that was growing on his fibula.

Leo began complaining about a sharp ache in his leg this fall, which seemed at first to be nothing more than growing pains — until he began to stumble as the pain intensified. Soon after, he was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a bone cancer so rare, the oncology department at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago has only seen six cases this year.

Dr. Paul Kent, director of the children’s sarcoma program at the hospital, credits the vigilance of Leo’s parents, Eric and Clara, with the positive prognosis their son now faces. Early detection meant the tumor had not yet metastasized. Also, while doctors see only about 250 cases of Ewing’s sarcoma cases a year worldwide, Kent noted that because Leo is enrolled in the National Cancer Institute Study for children, which combines the talents and cutting-edge research of doctors worldwide, his chances of beating this aggressive cancer go from three to 80 percent.

Eric Cardenas, who works for Kraft Foods, is thankful his insurance will cover all but 20 percent of medical costs. But because Leo’s treatment is lengthy and complicated — chemotherapy has already shrunk the tumor, which doctors hope to remove in February — they still face an insurmountable pile of bills.

That’s where communities and schools truly do come together. The more district staff, parents and kids heard about Leo, the more support has been offered — from the Thanksgiving Day meal Hill Elementary provided to the $2,000 from pie sales at Smith, where, it should be noted, 78 percent of students come from low income homes, according to the district.

Teacher Ramona Smith said the fifth graders there were at the end of their annual fundraiser for field trips when she heard about Leonardo’s battle with cancer.

“We had just discussed a unit in reading on doing the right thing,” Smith said. “So when I told them about Leonardo and asked them ‘What do you think about giving the family half our sales?’ - not one of them hesitated.”

With just little over a week left in the fundraiser, Smith sent out a letter about Leo, and watched in amazement as sales rocketed from 150 to 604, with one student, Julein Tijerina, selling 134 pies alone.

In addition to the schools getting behind this lesson in doing the right thing, Linner says local churches and other groups have also contributed. All of which leaves Leo’s dad Eric “absolutely grateful.”

“I feel I am not alone,” he said of this health crisis. “There are a lot of angels around our family.”

Rush University Medical Center’s Dr. Kent can’t help but be moved when he hears about this support that comes from a diverse community like West Aurora. It’s those with the least, he noted, who seem to always give the most.

“It doesn’t surprise me, but it warms my heart every time ... it’s the kind of thing that keeps all of us going.”

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