By Ken Downey Jr. | Correspondent
Around 500 students packed the gymnasium of St. Mary School, Middletown, filling the bleachers as they stomped their feet to the chant “Let’s Go Teachers” in anticipation of the annual student-faculty volleyball game.
The volleyball game Feb. 3 was part of the school assembly that brought Catholic Schools Week to a close. Each day throughout the week, Saint Mary School raised money for a different organization, and on the final day, that was the local pediatric cancer organization, “Infinite Love for Kids Fighting Cancer,” based in Middletown.
“We always find a nice cause, but this year we wanted to find something close to home,” Principal Craig Palmer said. “I think this was a perfect opportunity. Everybody focuses on adult cancer, but nothing for kids. I think it’s been an eye-opening experience for our kids.”
Photo Gallery: Catholic Schools Week in St. Mary, Middletown
The Gorsegner family began “Infinite Love for Kids Fighting Cancer” in 2012 when then-3-year-old Natalie Gorsegner was diagnosed with high-risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The Gorsegner family began a “dollar fund” in April 2013 by posting a photo online asking if people would donate a dollar for pediatric cancer. By September of that year, the family had raised $110,000.
Natalie, now 7, has been cancer-free since November 2014, but the Gorsegner family continues to bring awareness to the disease.
“I think a lot of time, people are afraid,” said Andrea Gorsegner, Natalie’s mother. “They don’t want to donate $5 because they feel that it’s not enough. But that could not be more false.”
Since 2012, “Infinite Love” has raised almost a half-million dollars. In just one school day, St. Mary raised $1,000 for the organization.
“We do a lot of fundraising and charity work at the school,” Palmer said. “A lot of the time, what we’ll do on the last day of Catholic Schools Week is a ‘dress down day’ where the kids will donate $2 each and be able to dress in T-shirts.”
The $1,000 donation would not have come about without PTA President Christine Schachtel, who made the school aware of the cause after getting to know the family through the organization’s main fundraising event and social media.
“I said to myself, ‘We need to bring these kids here; we need to make our students aware, and let’s find out how we can help them,’” she said.
A big part of the “Infinite Love” fundraising includes a special music video that the family has made with local singer and songwriter Taylor Tote, who was on hand for the Catholic Schools Week event. Tote and Natalie wrote an original song titled “Fighter” with Natalie’s sister, Hannah. Tote met the Gorsegners in 2015 when Andrea Gorsegner was looking for entertainment for a fundraising event. They quickly became close friends.
“It was an instant connection,” Tote said. “The girls were hugging me and showing me all of their prized possessions, and Andrea just started talking to me about childhood cancer and all of the harsh truths. I was totally baffled and couldn’t believe that was true.
“When I was babysitting for them one day, I said we should write a song,” Tote continued. “I didn’t expect it to be a fight song about childhood cancer, but it just kind of happened that way. Within the first three lines, I knew exactly where this was going.”
Tote surprised the students of St. Mary School when she arrived at the assembly to sing “Fighter.” During the song, Palmer sat in the middle of the gymnasium and let Natalie and Hannah shave his head. Concluding the song, local policemen and firefighters let the Gorsegner girls shave their heads as well.
Andrea Gorsegner said she has learned much during her experience as a parent with a child facing pediatric cancer. But there is one thing that she has taken away from her young daughter.
“What I have learned from Natalie is strength, full on strength,” she said. “I always tell people, ‘If you think you are having a bad day, if you think it’s the end of the world because you have this or you have that, go spend a day in the oncology ward.’ Those kids are incredible; they could be feeling so awful, yet they’re still asking for Play-Doh.
“She had her days where she wanted nothing to do with anything. But they [children] muster up this strength where we as adults just don’t have it.”