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Health Team

Schools help students, families cope with illness, loss

Posted September 20

— When fifth-grader Jillian Reed was diagnosed with a brain tumor in early 2015, teachers at Eastside Elementary School tried to maintain normalcy, enabling Jillian to continue doing what she loved most -- see her friends.

The school supplied her with an iPad so she could use the Facetime app and participate in classes during her six weeks of radiation in Indianapolis.

"Jillian loved school. She would rather be at school than anywhere else," said Jillian's mother, Rheanna Reed. "She could be there without being there."

Eastside Elementary on Thursday dedicated its east courtyard near the classroom where she spent her fourth-grade school year to Jillian. Made possible through a $3,000 grant from Meridian services, the courtyard will be used as a reading place for students.

The dedication coincides with Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.

"Jillian made a big impact with that school, so her classmates kind of felt it with her," Reed said. "I don't want people to stop talking about Jillian. This makes my heart smile."

Reed said her 11-year-old daughter started experiencing severe headaches around Christmastime 2014.

"After Christmas break, her headaches were pretty paralyzing," Reed said, noting that her daughter also had shoulder pain.

During an appointment with an eye doctor in February 2015, Jillian was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer, Reed said.

"We almost didn't take her to that appointment because she had missed so much school," she said.

On Valentine's Day, Jillian endured her first surgery to remove an 11-centimeter tumor. But the cancer returned.

Able to spend only one month attending sixth-grade classes at Highland Middle School, Jillian died Nov. 7, 2015.

Reed said Eastside, Highland and even Anderson High School, where her son, Travis Reed, was a senior, hosted jean days to raise money for Jillian's expenses. Teachers also bought gift cards to help the family as they traveled to Indianapolis for Jillian's treatments.

When Jillian died, Highland released balloons in remembrance. Anderson Community Schools Superintendent Terry Thompson called Reed to offer his condolences, and a message was sent out across the district.

"She was really a part of the school family, and the teachers got really close to her family," said Eastside Principal Val Scott.

Though Jillian had moved on to Highland, Scott said, honoring her at Eastside was important because most of her school career - grades two through five - had been spent there.

In spite of the sadness, Jillian's illness and death presented a strong teaching moment, and the school made a social worker available to counsel students.

"A lot of times for students, it's the first time they experience death," Scott said. "Some won't show emotion for a little while, and some will show a lot of emotion. Sometimes, they might act out because they don't know what to do with those emotions.

"We're a safe place for students. That means emotionally, too."

Jillian and her classmates weren't the only people who required special care. Travis missed a great deal of his senior year at Anderson High School to support his sister while she went through treatment.

Heather Bigoss, who was Jillian's fourth-grade teacher, designed the garden space, which includes a plaque dedicated to Jillian and "flowers" made of recycled hubcaps.

"Jillian's Garden is now a space that will continue the beauty that we saw in Jillian," Bigoss said.

Missy Morris, school social worker and home liaison at the high school, said schools often are called upon to help with siblings of children who are sick or dying.

"Obviously, it's incredibly important because it's a family concern. We're not just addressing the sick child," she said.

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Source: The (Anderson) Herald Bulletin, http://bit.ly/2cO5b0F

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