‘She’s changed our life’: Local teacher wins national contest for dedication to helping student battling cancer

Special Reports

COLONIE, N.Y. (NEWS10) — During the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen many teachers go above and beyond for their students. But one Capital Region teacher showed so much dedication to a young student struggling with cancer, that her family felt she really needed to be thanked in a big way. And she has!

Some friendships are not measured by time but by the path you travel together. No one knows that better than 7-year-old Charlie Fernandez and her teacher, Sarah Norton.

Jason Fernandez: “They are friends. They have fun together. They laugh.”
Danielle Fernandez: “Not only has she changed her life, she’s changed our life.”

Charlie’s parents, Jason and Danielle, said the special friendship began in Mrs. Norton’s classroom at Saddlewood Elementary School in Colonie.

It was around the time that Charlie had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.

“Neuroblastoma, it’s very tough,” Danielle said. “And when they said that — they said, you know, 66 percent chance — and most everyone relapses.”

It was just before Christmas 2019. And for a second time, Charlie would have to endure all those rounds of chemotherapy that had racked her little body like before.

But there was yet another devastating setback.

“We were getting ready to start another round of chemo, and she was like, ‘I can’t see,'” Danielle recalled. “I was like, ‘The tv is right there.’ She said, ‘No I can’t see.'”

It was an inoperable tumor pressing on her optic nerve, which caused her to lose her sight.

“It never came back. It still hasn’t come back,” Jason said. “We don’t know if she can see anything. She doesn’t really like to talk about it.”

But there was a light in the darkness in the form of Mrs. Norton with her regular hospital visits. Then, as if things couldn’t get any worse, an unwanted visitor arrived: COVID-19, shutting down hospital visits and schools.

And because Charlie couldn’t come to school, Mrs. Norton brought school to Charlie at her home.

And when canes were in short supply, Mrs. Norton fashioned one out of a hula hoop. She even trained her therapy dog George to go for walks with Charlie.

NEWS10’s Anya: “You weren’t going to let her blindness or COVID-19 stand in the way here.”
Sarah: “No.”
Anya: “Why?”
Sarah: “Because she deserves… I guess for all of my students I always say, it’s that dignity of risk. She deserves to try.”

When schools reopened for in-person learning, Charlie happily returned to her favorite place, Mrs. Norton’s room.

On rough days, she always has George to lean on.

“She will go above and beyond for any child in her classroom,” Danielle said. “We are the luckiest parents to have her in our life as a teacher for our daughter.”

Danielle has documented her daughter’s story for her many supporters on a Facebook page appropriately named “Charlie’s Angels In Effect.”

Sarah Norton, her most fierce angel, is mentioned in many posts.

And when Danielle heard that Staples, the retail supply chain, was accepting nominations for their #ThankATeacher contest, she didn’t skip a beat and nominated Mrs. Norton.

“As soon as I sent it in, I said I know she’s going to win.”

And, of course, she did!

One of 20 outstanding teachers chosen out of thousands nominated nationwide and awarded with a $5,000 gift card for classroom supplies.

The surprise announcement was made online.

“I am so appreciative of Charlie’s family nominating me and Staples. It’s so generous,” Mrs. Norton said. “Plus, I’m also thinking we can get a great laptop and put all this adaptive stuff on it.”

As for Charlie, doctors say her health is uncertain. Shortly after we met her, Charlie’s parents learned that she has relapsed again.

But no one is giving up hope. Least of all Mrs. Norton.

“I consider it my honor to be able to teach Charlie,” Mrs. Norton said. “It’s made me a better teacher; it challenged me to just make things work for her.”

And with a friend like that beside you, you never walk alone…no matter what the challenges.

Neuroblastoma is a rare but a very aggressive cancer in young children.

To find out more about neuroblastoma and how you can support families like Charlie’s:
https://www.facebook.com/Charlies-Angels-In-Effect-100122838008156

https://www.paypal.me/fernandezforcharlie

https://www.bandofparents.org/

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