‘A testament to you’: School communities lift up WDC students with cancer
Students had the option of wearing their pajamas to school for $1 on April 14, and raised $6,000 along with matching funds from the Princess Warrior Foundation.
WADENA — National pajama day shared a loving message as the Wadena-Deer Creek, Verndale and Bertha-Hewitt school communities jammied together their support for WDC students Sierra Sibert and Colin Arel, who are battling cancer.
With students at the helm of many fundraisers, the communities continually partner to raise funds, including recently for Gary Packer and his family , who passed away this year after battling brain cancer. Students had the option of wearing their pajamas to school for $1 on April 14, and raised $6,000 along with matching funds from the Princess Warrior Foundation.
“Really? Thank you. Oh my gosh, that’s crazy. Really?” said senior Sierra Sibert with surprise as she found out about the amount raised. Both families will receive $3,000 for expenses such as medical and travel costs.
“That is truly a testament to you,” shared Jil Fiemeyer, Princess Warrior founder, fundraiser organizer and REACH teacher. The communities want to help support families through their tough times. “We didn’t reach out to these schools, they reached out to help you. There’s just something about these communities and coming together.”
Throughout the day, the funds poured in with excitement to give the families $500 each and then $750 before reaching over $1,000.
Sibert loves a good school pajama day—as do students from kindergarten through high school, as middle/high school social worker Laura Kiser noted. Kiser enjoys seeing Sibert, this “amazing kid,” carry through school from classes to hanging out with her friends.
“When you’re in the hospital, when you’re not feeling good, (pajamas are) your armor,” Fiemeyer said. “It’s what you are wearing all the time so it’s kind of a symbol of solidarity too, that it’s comfy but we’re wearing the armor that the cancer patients are wearing as their armor as they fight this.”
As a young superhero fan, kindergartener Colin Arel is battling childhood leukemia after being diagnosed in February 2021. WDC also hosted a pajama day fundraiser, “Cozy for Colin,” last year.
Sibert began her cancer journey with a cough and itchiness that wouldn’t leave. The itchiness—though not directly related to the cancer—brought her to allergists and dermatologists for two years. After completing a breathing test for asthma, the doctors said there was something constricting her breathing but it wasn’t considered urgent.
In February 2022, Sibert went to the Children’s Hospital where they learned she had stage 2 Hodgkin's lymphoma. Hodgkin's lymphoma starts in lymphocytes, which are white blood cells in the lymph system that supports the immune system.
“I didn’t really sleep the night before we went in to get the xray because I was … struggling so much to breathe, which I would have never thought it was cancer,” Sibert said.
The diagnosis hit with a “huge mass” on her chest and sadness and shock for her parents, Tim and Heidi Sibert. While her diagnosis has taken time to process, Sibert said losing her hair from treatments is just a “new look.” At 18 years old, she’s also transitioning to signing hospital forms herself and learning about medical care costs.
“I never knew about Hodgkin's Lymphoma to start off with. Everybody talks about cancer and I didn’t even know that there was curable cancers, and so that was interesting. I was like, ‘Woah, I have cancer.’ But then they’re like, ‘It’s curable,’” Sibert described.
At first, she said thinking about completing her classes was “scary” because she wasn’t feeling well and had multiple hospital stays following her treatments. The doctors and nurses have been “uplifting” through the process, Sibert said.
“They just seem really confident because they are, because they’ve seen so many people get through all this,” Sibert said about the doctors.
Young kids, like Colin, carry an extra sadness for Sibert as she undergoes treatments at the Children’s Hospital oncology floor. Over the next few months, Sibert will continue with chemotherapy and possibly radiation. She said the mass is becoming smaller.
“It’s the same stuff they give me every time and sometimes I’ll leave and I’ll be like extremely nauseous and sick for the next few days. And sometimes I’ll leave and I feel fine,” Sibert described. “Usually I’m more nauseous.”
The journey has also taught Sibert about cancer, like the different types of chemo and how sadly common cancer is. Childhood leukemia, such as acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) and acute myeloid leukemia (AML), are the two of the most common cancers for children and teens, according to the American Cancer Society. Kiser said cancer is “too common.”
“I’m kind of glad I’m going through this in a way because it’s opened up like a different perspective on life and everything,” Sibert said. “I’m a lot softer.”
“I feel like you’d make life a lot harder if you tried to be mad all the time,” Sibert added about how she has a positive attitude.
The Princess Warrior Foundation honors five students with cancer in the area every year at the Princess Warrior 5K in honor of Jane Fiemeyer. Jane, who was a member of the WDC class of 2022, passed away in 2012 after battling leukemia. Arel was honored in 2021, though he wasn’t able to attend due to rough chemotherapy sessions.
“From this mom’s heart to see you being able to articulate how you’re growing as a person and how this is positively affecting you when it’s something so crappy, it gives me some warm fuzzies,” Fiemeyer said. She added Jane would love to see this support for students undergoing cancer treatments because “that’s exactly how Jane would want her legacy, and that money can help other burdens and help others feel better.”
Through her journey, Sibert carries hope while finishing her senior year. She plans to take prerequisite college courses in Wadena over the next two years before applying to the dental hygienist program at M State Moorhead.
“You handle it like a trooper,” Fiemeyer said to Sibert. “You are so graceful and so kind and so compassionate.”
- Princess Warrior Foundation: janefiemeyerprincesswarrior.com
- Hodgkin’s lymphoma: cancer.org/cancer/hodgkin-lymphoma
- Childhood leukemia: cancer.org/cancer/leukemia-in-children