CLIFTON PARK, N.Y. -- The Shenendehowa community has once again come together to show overwhelming support for families who have lost their children. In honor of four students who passed away before graduating, several families, students and community members gathered in front of High School East Wednesday for a Memorial Garden dedication then moved to Steurerwald Stadium to participate in the LukeStrong Olympics.
Over the past several months, the parents of Luke Romano and Nick Cammarata, who each lost their battles with cancer before graduating, and the parents of Chris Stewart and Deanna Rivers, the teens killed in the 2012 Northway crash, joined together with members from Nick's Round Table, High School PTSA and administrators to develop a new and improved memorial garden.
"The goal was to make the garden more inviting to commemorate students," said Janine Cammarata, Nick's Fight to Be Healed Foundation President and mother of the 13-year-old who lost his battle with T-Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia and passed away in 2008. "I'm really impressed by all the effort that went into getting all this together. This really is such a supportive community to be a part of."
As a part of the non-for-profit, Nick's Fight to Be Healed Foundation, local students have created Nick's Round Table in the hope of making a difference in the lives of other teens battling cancer. During Round Table meetings the teens discussed their desire to tend to the overgrown garden that they didn't feel represented the loved ones they had lost very well.
"It started as just wanting to help improve the appearance of the garden, but became this big collaborative effort, with the school, a committee of students from the school, Nick's Round Table members and the Rivers, Stewart and Cammarata families," said Annette Romano, mother who lost her son Luke, whom LukeStrong Olympics is named after. "It just became bigger and better than we could have ever imagined. To work and sweat together and seeing the kids get involved, it really is healing to see how the community can come together for something like this."
A majority of the physical work was completed Saturday by community volunteers, former football teammates of Chris Stewart and students, but months of planning and fundraising went into seeing this dream come to fruition. Dante Cilento, a member of the round table, initiated a design inspiration that began the renovation project. PK Gerstenberger, president of Nick's Round Table, took an active role in getting the planning started.
Granite benches were donated by the Brian and Deborah Rivers, Mike and Regina Stewart and the Cammarata family in honor of their children who would have graduated in 2013 and by the Romano family in honor of Luke who would have graduated in 2012.
"My wife and I jumped in about two weeks late, but when I heard about this, I had to throw my two scents in," Brian Rivers, Deanna Rivers' father, said. "I might have changed a couple shrubs around, but it's really about the kids. The way they came together and the charity of the football team and some of the softball team, it really was just overwhelming."
Brian and Deborah Rivers said more than anything, they want this to be an inviting place for people come and spend some time remembering how important they all are to each other. Brian said that this was just another example of tight-knit the Shen Community is and how much their support can mean to any hurting family.
Tough the Stewart family also joined the efforts that originally begun by the Cammarata and Romano families a couple weeks in, they said they felt blessed to have been a part of it. They said they when it came down to it, it served as the perfect story to speak to the character of their community.
Each year the young adults involved in the round table raise money to help students in need. This year, the money raised during the LukeStrong Olympics is being donated to the Chris Stewart and Deanna Rivers Scholarship funds and Nick's Fight to be Healed Foundation. The money donated to Nick's Fight to be Healed Foundation will be used specifically to help a current Shenendehowa student in his battle with cancer.
There was a large white ribbon around the entire garden at Wednesday night's dedication, which began at 5:45 in front of Shenendehowa High School East with opening remarks from Principal Don Flint and a ribbon cutting by the Stewart and Rivers families. There was a special mention of Annette Romano and PK Gerstenberger. Superintendent Dr. Oliver Robinson delivered the keynote address at the event with inspirational words of the memorial's importance. The Cammarata family released ballons before inviting attendees to join them for the Lukestrong Olympics. Sixteen teams comprised of students and one teacher moved to Steurerwald Stadium at 6:30, where they competed in events like relays, a tug of war, an ice cream eating contest.