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Pay It Forward

It started as a play day of sorts, a bonding time for the Education Specialist (Ed.S.) students as they wrapped up summer courses.

As the cadre of 24 students ended their first year in Doane’s latest degree program, their Professor of Leadership in Graduate Education, Dr. Doug Christensen, offered to host the group at his house for lunch, relaxation and a time to connect. At the last minute, the group decided to add a service component to the day and spent the morning at the Center for People In Need before enjoying golf, capitol tours, Lincoln activities and a barbecue in the afternoon.

Two summers later, the end-of-summer meeting day has an official name: “Servant Leadership Day – Pay it Forward.”

And the cadre is talking about what will happen when they graduate in May 2014; Will they still come together each summer for a service project?

What made the day evolve from a day of fun to a legacy of service?

Madison Carol Joy Brown, 16.

Maddie to all who loved her.

She died on a Saturday morning, July 13, after battling glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive and lethal brain cancer; battling with all the sass and spunk and grit people relished about her.

The Ed.S. students played only a small part in Maddie’s cancer journey – hosting a Christmas in July celebration for her on July 8 – but the effect on the group was big.

“We have huge admiration for the strength that Maddie and her family were putting forth. With so many of us being parents and all of us working with children, it really was something to see how they handled it; the positive attitude they put forth. We were just trying to bring some joy to this time for them but the rewards came right back to us. It filled our hearts,” said Kati Settles, an assistant principal at Papillion-La Vista South High School and a member of Cadre 1.

They will each take the experience back to their homes and their classrooms, she said.

No one in the group knew Maddie when they were brainstorming ideas for the 2013 service project. They thought of TeamMates, but that wasn’t a fit for their half day of service. Then someone suggested TeamJack, and 7 year-old Jack Hoffman, who became a household name when he ran in a 69-yard touchdown at Nebraska’s spring game. A husker fan and a cancer patient, his run brought national attention to pediatric brain cancer and earned an ESPY award for Best Moment.

When the cadre contacted his parents, they responded with gratitude and an idea: they didn’t need any help right now, but through social media, they knew of a girl who did. They suggested a Christmas in July party for Maddie because it was unclear how long she would be able to continue her fight.

The cadre thought it was a perfect idea. They visited Maddie’s Facebook page: Maddie’s Fight is Our Fight, Too. And there they met Maddie. They saw a spark of a girl, posing in her Amigo’s uniform as she started the job she earned all on her own; a picture with her brother as she began what was supposed to be a typical sophomore year of high school. They read the entries that began after her diagnosis in November of 2011, as she geared up for her fight. The page documented and connected people to her journey – the surgeries, the steroids, the sickness. It was a cheer section when she won her battles, and a rallying point when she began to lose.

A phone call to a friend of Maddie’s family put the party in motion. She helped them secure a room at Madonna (where Maddie was in the Long Term Hospice Care Program) and told them about the family and what they might need.

The event took off on its own from there, Kati said. “That’s what I love about this group. You tell them a brief description of what you are doing and suddenly this humongous party had planned itself.”

On July 8, the cadre, Dr. Christensen and Adjunct Professor Dr. Cinde Wendell arrived at Madonna, the cadre in their TeamJack shirts, hoping to bring a little Christmas spirit to a family whose spirits needed lifting, if only for a moment. For the next two hours, it was Christmas in the conference room at Madonna.  There were small Christmas trees and a huge Santa, lights, wreaths, greenery, Christmas cookies and ornaments. They sang Christmas carols very softly because noise was hard for Maddie to take that day, and Dr. Christensen told a special version of The Night Before Christmas that he rewrote to reflect Maddie’s family.

They played Christmas bingo and passed out presents; gift cards for massages and frappuccinos, pottery with Maddie’s handprints and other ornaments donated by a pottery business, which will be fired and ready to hang on the family’s tree at their first Christmas without Maddie. There were gifts for her siblings, mom, and cousin.

Neither the cadre nor Maddie’s family knew how the event would go, but Maddie was determined to be there, Kati said and in the end, it meant as much to the cadre as to the family.

Maddie and her family gathered at a table and took in the Christmas scene.

“We watched in awe,” Kati said. “The way her mom took care of her…It was just kind of a time for them to be kids and have fun and it really did feel like Christmas.”

Maddie’s mom, Joy, posted thanks on Maddie’s page, saying “The students of the Doane Education Specialists Cadre 1 came and gave Maddie and all of us here a fabulous Christmas in July!! It was very special for all of us. They thought of EVERYTHING! Games, cookie decorating, making ornaments and even some presents!

And later…So thankful for the Christmas party this morning!!! I was a little skeptical about how it would go, but it was 100% precious! So grateful that Maddie decided to get up and take part! Some very sweet memories were made!

That same Facebook page is a little quieter now. A memorial slideshow is posted that played at Maddie’s service. Family, friends and strangers are still posting kind thoughts and memories. It’s a place to share about the girl they miss and find ways to help other families continue to fight the disease.

Kati and other cadre members are still a little in awe that they were privileged to meet Maddie and shine a small light into her final days.

She’s the reason they may make their service day an annual event even after they earn their Doane degree next May.

“The whole purpose of service is wanting people to feel that fire of service, realizing how many people out there could use a little bit of joy,” Kati said.

Memorials are being accepted at the Maddie Brown’s Fight Fund at any Wells Fargo bank or http://www.gofundme.com/maddiesfightisourfighttoo