HAPPY PEANUTS - Four-year-old Caitlyn Zabko is battling a rare form of cancer called Ewing's Sarcoma and will undergo surgery later this month at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Half a country away, Rene Crouse's Pre-K class at the Rend Lake College Foundation Children's Center in southern Illinois decided to send Caitlyn Halloween gifts since she won't be able to trick or treat this year. She is pictured above holding the gifts, one of which is "Princess Peanut," a special gift through Build-A-Bear Foundation's "Beary Good Cause" program, and named after Caitlyn's nickname "Peanut."CLICK HERE for a larger image. 

CIRCLE OF SUPPORT - Classmates circle their gift to Caitlyn. CLOCKWISE, FROM TOP are; Ruari Laughlin (Mt. Vernon), Claire Gulley (Sesser), Sophia Owens (Mt. Vernon), Sydney Black (Mt Vernon), Ava Wheeler (Mt. Vernon), Grady Brown (Valier), Gage Roberts (Mt. Vernon), Xareth Wood (Sesser), Carson Flannagan (Bonnie), Logan Schwaner (Mt. Vernon), Lane Lightfoot (Mt. Vernon), Caeden Moss (Sesser), Lucas Kramer (Benton), Chelsie Horner (Mt. Vernon), Jack Zellers (Dahlgren), Katie Craddock (Mt. Vernon) and Braxton Dent (Bonnie). CLICK HERE for a larger image. 

BUILT WITH LOVE - The students wrote on hearts that were sewn inside Princess Peanut. CLICK HERE for a larger image. 

INA, Ill. – Young students at the Rend Lake College Foundation Children’s Center have been busy learning one of life’s most important lessons. With help from the Build-A-Bear Foundation, Rene Crouse’s Pre-K class put a smile on the face of a girl whose battle with a rare form of cancer is keeping her from celebrating Halloween like a four year old should.

Caitlyn is the daughter of Crouse’s friend, Candy Zabko, who lives in Maryland. Fighting her battle against Ewing’s Sarcoma, Caitlyn is scheduled to undergo surgery around Halloween. It is unlikely Caitlyn will be able to trick or treat this year. Well, the Pre-K kids won’t have that.

“The children in my class wanted to do something to cheer her up,” Crouse said. “They decided that her favorite candy and a new Teddy bear would do the trick.”

But just any bear wouldn’t do. It had to be special.

Crouse wrote to the Build-A-Bear Foundation which deemed their project a “Beary Good Cause.” The Pre-K kids helped pick out the bear and named it “Princess Peanut.” Crouse and assistant teacher Nichole Musielak went to Build-A-Bear Workshop, began building, and returned with the one-of-a-kind “Princess Peanut.” Sewn inside are small hearts – one from each child – that represent the wishes they made for Caitlyn. One of those messages particularly moved Crouse.

“Logan said his heart hurt because she is sick. I about cried.”

“Princess Peanut” is now in Caitlyn’s hands. It arrived, packed alongside a lighted fairy princess costume, Halloween accessories, and a Jack-O-Lantern stuffed with her favorite candies.

Caitlyn’s disease comes along in one in a million children each year. Her doctors say she has a 75 percent chance of recovering fully from Ewing’s Sarcoma with initial therapy. Fortunately, the malignancy is contained in the small mass along her spine and is in no other area of her body. In all, she is scheduled to undergo a year-long 17 rounds of intense chemotherapy. Diagnosed in June, she is now on her sixth cycle at Johns Hopkins Hospital where Candy is a nurse. Candy said while the therapy is intense, it is aimed at curing her daughter so she can return to the “vibrant, mischievous and free-spirited child she was.”

Crouse was asked about her class’ reactions to updates about Caitlyn. She said, “I’ve heard a lot of them say, ‘Why is your friend sick?’ And, ‘Why doesn’t she have hair?’ We talk a lot about how she has an illness she has to have medicine for that made her hair fall out. She has a purple wig and they all think it is really cool. They said it is really sad she won’t get to trick or treat, but they are really happy they are sending her candy. ... They think she is going to love Princess Peanut!”

They were right. Caitlyn sent the class a message after getting her gifts in the mail.

“I think you are very nice,” she said. “I love my Princess Peanut bear the best!”

Candy said she hopes to bring Caitlyn to southern Illinois one day, to meet her RLCFCC friends. Candy also wrote to the staff and children at the center. She talked about Caitlyn’s therapy and the difficulty that comes with it. But, she stated, the outpouring of encouragement and support from others has helped. She talked about the care package that came from kids at the RLCFCC this past summer. It contained snacks, hand-knitted hats and blankets, games and crafts, and pre-school learning tools that she will need since she is physically unable to attend pre-school this year. Candy said the most precious thing in the box was a book made by some of the students at the center. It contained their photos, as well as pictures and hand-written notes for Caitlyn. Princess Peanut also came with a book made by the students. It told the bear’s story – how it was made with love – and included photos of her trip around the RLC campus before making the final journey to Caitlyn.

“When my husband and I read the book, it brought us to tears,” Candy wrote. “Such a wonderful act of kindness from complete strangers, who have clearly shown us that they support us and are on ‘Team Peanut’ – I cannot put into words what their support and actions mean to us all. And simply saying thank you just doesn’t begin to cut it. You guys are amazing!”

Crouse said the class will aim to send Caitlyn something each season. In the meantime, the little “Peanut” with the tough shell will keep singing and dancing to Justin Bieber, playing with Disney princesses, and dreaming of future days on the soccer field.

“Team Peanut,” a spin on Caitlyn’s nickname, is a support campaign, along with Caring for Caitlyn. The most recent event held to help was on Saturday – a 5K-run and 1K-walk sponsored by the Mom’s Club of Northwestern Pasadena, Md. Those wishing to support Caitlyn’s care can go online to www.everribbon.com and search ribbons for “Caitlyn.”

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