Goddard: Annual fundraiser becomes personal

Amelia Earhart Elementary students raised more than $3,600 this school year, with $1,000 going to teacher Bonnie Saunders and the rest to Victory in the Valley, which assists cancer victims and survivors.

Earhart students donate to educator

By Travis Mounts
The Times-Sentinel

GODDARD – Bonnie Saunders, a special education teacher at Amelia Earhart Elementary School, has a long relationship with the Goddard School District.

“When I was young, I struggled in school. I couldn’t read and had a lot of behaviors. My parents knew I needed help and heard how great of a school district Goddard was. They bought a house in the district. My mom informed the school that I had struggles. It didn’t take very long before the teachers saw what my mom did. They put me up for testing and my mom took me in for medical help.  Turned out that I have ADHD and am dyslexic. I didn’t get the help I needed until I moved into Goddard District in the eighth grade. By the end of ninth grade, I was reading. I went on to graduate from Goddard and have always said they were the reason I had a chance at life,” she said.

Years later, her daughter was having issues at school, so Saunders and her husband moved into the Goddard school district so their child could get the same help that Saunders received.
She took a job as a para educator at Goddard High School and soon discovered she was good at the job.

“There was a student who was a half-credit away from graduating in math. He tried several times to get that credit and just couldn’t do it. He said he was just going to drop out. I begged him to not drop out and to just give me a chance. Thank goodness he gave me that chance. With the struggles I had in school, I knew other ways to teach him, so I did,” Saunders said.

“He said, ‘If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be graduating, thank you.’ I assured him that he was the one that did all the work, I just cheered him on.”

That led her to become a special education teacher, and through the special education interlocal, she was assigned to Goddard schools. After a stress-related heart attack in 2014, she switched from working with high school students to elementary-age youth. She was assigned to Earhart Elementary.

“I was quickly accepted into a family. I worked day in and day out along the side of my colleagues to do what we needed in order to meet the needs of the students at Earhart,” Saunders said.

Unexplained health issues at the start of the 2019-20 school year led to many doctor visits and an eventual ovarian cancer diagnosis. Her doctor said ovarian cancer is extremely aggressive.

“I told him, ‘That’s OK, so am I,” she said

She had surgery and it went well. The cancer had spread to her bladder and pelvis and doctors removed that, and the ovarian cancer had not metastasized. But she was diagnosed as also having liver and kidney cancer. Three days days after her surgery, Saunders’ mother died unexpectedly.

“My Earhart family once again helped me through a very difficult time. I had a short time to morn my mom’s death before doctors informed me that I needed to get back to my fight. I had to have another surgery so they could figure out what was on my kidney and liver,” she said.

The next few months were filled with ups and downs. Her leave of absence has been longer than anticipated, and there were complications from one surgery.

Meanwhile, her Earhart family has rallied around her with meals, money, love and support. That included $1,000 to help cover medical costs.

That money was raised by Earhart students. Librarian Staci Thomas explained that for the past nine years, students have held fundraisers to benefit Victory in the Valley, a Wichita charity that provides support to cancer patients and survivors. They usually raise between $2,000 and $3,000 each school year. This year they raised $3,623.36 and they did it a dollar at a time. It was the first time they made a direct donation to a specific cancer fighter, rather than just giving everything to Victory in the Valley.

Bonnie Saunders

“Our classroom teachers are all so wonderful,” Thomas said. They organized many of the events, such as a movie night or a pajama day. Snacks and lolipops and nachos were sold, and game days were held.

“The kids bring a dollar for various activities around the building,” Thomas said. “We have great support from our students, parents and staff.”

Right now, things look really good for Saunders.

“As of right now, all the doctors believe that they have removed all the cancer. There were moments I wasn’t sure if I could make it. Fighting for my life is the hardest thing I have ever done. Just when I felt like I couldn’t go on, one of my colleagues would show up on my doorstep. I never could figure out how they always knew when I was struggling. Each one of them shared their time, their love, taught me new recipes, and just flat out carried me when I was struggling to walk,” she said. “To the world, I was just another cancer patient. To my family in Goddard, I was their loved one. They made it clear that my fight was their fight.”