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Students pitch in to help girl's family pay for transplant

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Vanessa Gissel, 10, a fourth-grade student at B.B. Harris Elementary School talks with her friend and classmate Lauren Park, 10, in Duluth Thursday. Gissel who battles sickle cell anemia will receive a bone marrow transplant from her sister Sarah, 2, in April. Students and faculty at B.B. Harris Elementary School have rallied around the Gissel family raising $4,168 for Vanessa during Jan. 14-18.

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Vanessa Gissel, 10, a fourth-grade student at B.B. Harris Elementary School talks with her friend and classmate Lauren Park, 10, in Duluth Thursday. Gissel who battles sickle cell anemia will receive a bone marrow transplant from her sister Sarah, 2, in April. Students and faculty at B.B. Harris Elementary School have rallied around the Gissel family raising $4,168 for Vanessa during Jan. 14-18.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan B.B. Harris Elementary School Principal Dr. Lauri Burton, School Counselor Sean Nestor, fourth grade teacher Mark Coker, and Parent Liaison Lourdes Hernandez pose for a photograph with Vanessa Gissel, 10, a fourth-grader in front of her mother Dominique in Duluth Thursday. Gissel who battles sickle cell anemia will receive a bone marrow transplant from her sister Sarah, 2, in April. Students and faculty have rallied around the Gissel family raising $4,168 for Vanessa during Jan. 14-18.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Vanessa Gissel, 10, laughs beside her mother Dominique at B.B. Harris Elementary School in Duluth Thursday. Vanessa who battles a sickle cell anemia disease will receive a bone marrow transplant from her sister Sarah, 2, in April.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Fourth-grader Vanessa Gissel, 10, walks through the hallway with her mother Dominique at B.B. Harris Elementary School in Duluth Thursday. Dominique holds a presentation check for $4,168, raised by students and faculty at B.B. Harris Elementary School who have rallied around the Gissel family. Vanessa will be receiving a bone marrow transplant from her sister Sarah in April.

DULUTH -- Of more than $4,000 collected to help fund a 10-year-old's bone marrow transplant, a majority was made up of what Sean Nestor called "piggy bank money."

"It was crumpled dollar bills and assorted pennies and quarters," said Nestor, a counselor at B.B. Harris Elementary and the man behind a schoolwide effort to help the family of Vanessa Gissel afford an expensive medical procedure.

A fourth-grade student who suffers from sickle cell anemia, Vanessa found herself surrounded weeks ago by the support of students, teachers and others from around the community.

The school sponsored "Vanessa's Team," a week-long fundraising effort that asked students to donate money in return for blue and purple bead necklaces: two of the little girl's favorite colors.

The results, Nestor said, were surprising.

"We never had any idea it would raise this much money," he said. "We just wanted to give her and her family a little something to let her know we were on her team, on her side. When we counted the money at the end of the first day of the fundraiser, we had $1,000."

It was no surprise to Principal Lauri Burton. In fact, it made perfect sense.

"It just shows you all the love and compassion our kids and our staff have for each other," Burton said. "This is what school is all about. It's about what's best for students, and if a child is sick or in need, this is a family here, and we're going to make sure every one of our family members are taken care of."

Vanessa's mom, Dominique, said they've indeed made the Gissels feel like kin.

"It's overwhelming," Dominique said. "It means so much to us ... the fact that all those kids were thinking about her."

Vanessa was born with sickle cell anemia -- a genetic disorder -- but her first serious life threatening crisis didn't occur until she was 7 years old. "She started having more and more pain," Dominique said. "So I decided not to go to work. I left my job to take care of her."

Because her husband, Gregory, is a contractor, the family doesn't have health insurance. The children are covered by Medicaid, but it only covers so much with a medical procedure like a bone marrow transplant.

With the transplant scheduled for April, the check for $4,168 will help a lot, she said.

The crumpled dollars, faded quarters and scratched pennies really added up, Nestor said.

"There were multiple kids who brought in their piggy bank money," he said. "A lot of these were kids who never even met Vanessa. They were just swept up in this idea that they could help a fellow student in need."

In the presence of the media, Vanessa is a girl of few words. She smiled brightly however when asked how she felt about her counselor, Mr. Nestor. "He's awesome," she said, with two thumbs up.

To help Vanessa and her family as they face upcoming medical expenses, visit www.gofundme.com/Vanessas-Team