Walk through the halls of Lawson Elementary and you’re bound to hear the chatter in each classroom. Walk through the halls at the start of the school day, and you’ll hear nearly 600 kids counting out push-ups — yes, real push-ups — in the name of a fellow classmate.
This classmate is Cooper Wendland, a third grader diagnosed with leukemia on July 18, 2016. Since the school year started, his classmates and Lawson staff have rallied around Cooper and his family, twin brother Jaxson and parents Stacie and Jeff. In November, a challenge was issued to the school to do “Coop-ups” (push ups) each day of the month to “push out” the cancer.
“There’s a lot about a cancer diagnosis and the treatments that can get hard,” said Stacie. “Rob Wisniewski, the boys’ KTC coordinator, came up with this idea as a way to involve the whole school in Cooper’s fight against the disease. The kids had fun with it and it was a way for Cooper to feel connected to the school.”
That connection started early on in the year. After receiving the diagnosis, the Wendlands contacted Lawson principal Trisha Lenarz-Garmoe and explained what was going on. From there, his teacher Melanie Sesker got involved, visiting Cooper in the hospital and planning what she could do in the classroom to make his third grade year his best yet, despite the disease.
“We all want Cooper to be in school as much as possible, as his treatments allow him to be,” said Sesker. “A big part of that is making sure his classmates understand what’s going on and take extra precautions with germs.”
The Lawson third grade team emailed information to parents before the school year started and encouraged them to talk to their children at home. They then had a Child Life Specialist from Blank Children’s Hospital come speak to the class and answer questions from the kids. New norms, such as sanitizing hands and wiping down desks, were put in place.
“It’s the little things that make a big difference,” Sesker said. “The kids are almost protective of Cooper and very kind. It makes me so proud to see their compassion for another classmate. As a mom – and a teacher – these are the things you hope kids learn.”
Throughout the fall months, Cooper was in and out of leukemia treatments. Even when hospital stays took him away from the classroom, his parents and teachers utilized SeeSaw to stay connected. The hospital also had a teacher on site who coordinated with Sesker and helped Cooper with daily assignments.
Without family in town, the Wendlands said the support from the Lawson and Johnston schools community has been top-notch.
“We are thankful for the little things,” said Jeff. “The boys love football and so Coach Wiebers and several football players came to visit him in the hospital, then did “VIP” access at a game where Cooper and Jaxson met the players, coaches, and sat on the field. There are constantly people at every step of this journey who are so kind and want to help.”
And all those “coop-ups” to push out Cooper’s cancer? They worked. The Wendlands received the news shortly before Thanksgiving that Cooper no longer had leukemia.
“We have a long ways to go before Cooper can officially be cancer-free, but knowing the leukemia is no longer in his body is a huge reason to celebrate,” Stacie said. “We still have some intensive treatments to go through, but this is a great check point.”
All along, Lawson teachers have been amazed at Cooper’s resiliency.
“Cooper is an amazing little guy and as he gets stronger and fights off this disease, we see more and more of his fun personality shine through,” Sesker said. “He doesn’t let cancer get him down. Anything we can do as a school and a community to support him, we will. He has been an inspiration to everyone that he comes in contact with and has touched so many lives.”