Callie Cavanaugh and Jenn Gray: Persons of year honored for selfless acts

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette
Callie Cavanaugh, left, of Loyalsock Township and Jenn Gray of Williamsport were chosen to share this year’s Sun-Gazette Person of the Year honors for selfless acts each demonstrated in the past year. Cavanaugh, who has been battling Rhabdomyosarcoma, a childhood cancer, has spent her time raising money to help others afflicted with childhood cancer. Gray donated a kidney to a co-worker at Williamsport Area Middle School.

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Callie Cavanaugh, left, of Loyalsock Township and Jenn Gray of Williamsport were chosen to share this year’s Sun-Gazette Person of the Year honors for selfless acts each demonstrated in the past year. Cavanaugh, who has been battling Rhabdomyosarcoma, a childhood cancer, has spent her time raising money to help others afflicted with childhood cancer. Gray donated a kidney to a co-worker at Williamsport Area Middle School.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Today the Sun-Gazette concludes its seventh annual Person of the Year series. Five finalists were spotlighted each day of the past week leading up to today. Today we salute Callie Cavanaugh and Jenn Gray as our 2017 Persons of the Year because of what we are calling “selfless acts.” We honor them not only for their compassionate and caring nature, but also for providing inspiration.)

Callie Cavanaugh felt weak and sick. Her parents repeatedly told her she need not do it, but the 8-year-old who has fought cancer the past two years would not listen. The Loyalsock resident would fight through the pain and attend a photo shoot that landed her on a billboard that over looks Times Square.

This was not about Callie. It was about promoting cancer awareness and raising money for those in need. Callie has raised tens of thousands of dollars since being diagnosed and would all but walk through Hell if it helped raise more that could help others.

Williamsport Area Middle School teacher’s aide Jenn Gray nearly died on the operating table while having gall bladder surgery a few years ago. It could have scared her away from having any future optional surgery. Instead, when Gray learned that fellow teacher’s aide Jenn Pick needed a kidney, she immediately started trying to find out if she could be a match.

Her previous experience never entered into the decision and, on Sept. 14, Gray donated her kidney. Pick is now flourishing and the mother of two young daughters is living the energetic kind of life that eluded her as her kidney condition worsened over the past year.

Callie and Gray easily could have said, “No.”

That is not who they are.

They are givers.

They are heroes who put others above themselves.

And they are the Sun-Gazette’s Persons of the Year.

Callie and Gray’s selfless acts earned them the top spot and have helped more people than they likely will ever know.

“Callie is amazing. She is a true hero in every sense of the word,” Schick Elementary School Guidance Counselor Jen Cooley said. “Our school mascot is the Lancer, who is this heroic fighter, and that defines her. Callie is a fighter and she is waging war (against) cancer. She is an inspiration to us all.”

“I think she (Gray) is an amazing person,” Pick said. “Not many people step up to do that kind of stuff, and I thank her every day because I think she’s the best.”

Different roads

Both of this year’s honorees have traveled different roads. Callie’s started Dec. 4, 2015, when her mother Michelle felt a tumor inside her stomach. Just 7 years-old, Callie was diagnosed with pelvic rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer of the connective tissues. Callie soon embarked along a long, windy and often bumpy road. She endured 20 weeks of chemotherapy, followed by surgery and radiation treatments.

By October 2016 it appeared Callie was cancer-free. Right around Christmas, however, her conditioned worsened. She began suffering from fatigue along with stomach issues. The Cavanaugh family, which includes Michelle, husband Kevin, and three older brothers, hoped it was just the stomach bug, but the cancer had returned with a vengeance.

By April, what was supposed to be a five-day surgery stay turned into a harrowing three-week ordeal. At one point, the Cavanaughs were told the only thing that they may be able to do is keep her remaining time as comfortable as possible. Both Callie and her family continued fighting and a new chemotherapy was prescribed.

Not her spirit

It worked, too. By July, Callie was planning a daily itinerary for the family as they vacationed at Rehoboth Beach. When school started in August, Callie was there. She has not missed a day since.

She is still receiving chemotheraphy sessions, but returns to school the next day each time. Her tumors are still there, but have shrunk. Concerns remain, but Callie is living like someone who is cancer-free. Cancer can touch her body, but not her spirit. Wherever she goes, Callie is offering lessons of courage and strength.

“She has to get the chemo, but that is such an insignificant part of her physical state. She has a maturity level that more than most adults do not possess,” said Callie’s oncologist, Dr. Michael Miller. “She sees how hard other people have it and takes that to heart to make their life easier, forgetting that she’s one of the kids going through that. It’s not pushing it back and ignoring it. It’s, ‘I’ll do this and then do something better.’ It’s like homework to her. ‘I don’t like it, but as soon as it’s done I can go off and get away and do something I like.'”

“There are so many people praying for her just because they see her attitude and are like, ‘Why do I feel sorry for myself when someone like her is going through this?’ Michelle Cavanaugh, also a doctor, said. “We have so many people who find her as their inspiration. She gives them strength when they are down.”

Put here to help

That is far from the only thing Callie provides. It seems like Callie was put here to help others. That is what she lives for. That is what keeps her going strong when it would be so easy to feel sorry for herself. Instead, she is the consummate giver. She is someone who can instantly change a person’s day, perspective or life.

When Callie was first diagnosed, she made her father Kevin a heart that thanked him for taking her to the hospital. When her oldest brother Cole, a Loyalsock senior, lost a playoff game in 2016, Callie wrote him a letter telling him that he was still her hero. When a fellow classmate is struggling with anything, Callie always is there comforting them.

This is a tough girl who missed just one softball game during her first round of chemotherapy. She is a warrior with a gentle soul.

“Callie usually sees the lining that we don’t see,” Kevin said. “She always sees the glass half-full.”

“She’s just an incredible kid who keeps all our spirits up,” Michelle said. “Whenever we feel like we can’t keep going with this she’s like, ‘Oh we’ll keep going, it’s fine.’ She just doesn’t slow down. Instead of others comforting Callie, she is the one comforting others.”

Callie’s efforts soon went from uplifting to heroic. It started in December of 2016 when she decided she wanted to design and sell shirts and bracelets. The idea caught fire and raised $10,000. She also came up with the idea to buy $1,000 worth of Barbie dolls for girls and race cars for boys who are staying in hospitals. Just recently, Callie helped raise $2,500 for the Make-a-Wish Foundation, $2,500 for Ronald McDonald’s House and $1,000 for food for families in need.

The help Callie provides has gone worldwide. She and her family are heavily involved in “Children’s Cancer Research,” and were a sponsor for “The Great Cycle Challenge,” a Wisconsin event that raised $5 million this past year. To help promote that event, pictures of Cancer-stricken children were shown on a Times Square billboard. The effort it took for Callie to have those photos taken perfectly illustrates who she is.

“I said, ‘Callie you can barely smile and we’re not going to make you do this,’ but she said, ‘I will do it for the kids,’ “ Kevin Cavanaugh said. “She did pictures when incubated, laying in bed and smiling. You don’t want your kid to be the poster child for that, but I do understand that people do have to see what this is really all about.”

“Callie is a true blessing,” Cooley said. “She makes us all want to be better and keep the faith and laugh and enjoy life … She just continues to inspire and amaze everyone.”

So does Gray.

Others stand in awe

The ironic part is Gray does not see it that way. Others stand in awe of her sacrificing a kidney for another but she does not. That is just who Gray is.

“Nothing ever crossed my mind about doing it,” Gray said. “I don’t see it as a special act, I see it as she needed it and we were the same blood type and that was it.”

Pick did not learn until she was 18 that she was born with only one kidney. She never had health issues before that, but started feeling sluggish when she entered adulthood. High blood pressure and anemia signaled that Pick was going into kidney failure. At that point, she was Stage 3 out of 5 and her diet was drastically altered. Pick essentially was eating fruits and vegetables for the next 16 years.

A year ago, Pick’s health started deteriorating quicker. She entered the end of stage 4 and was borderline 5 and it was determined that she needed a kidney. Pick was put on the waiting list. During the next six months, surgery was performed to insert fistulas into her arm in case dialysis became necessary. That option was about a year away when Gray noticed a comment Pick had made on Facebook.

Kept issues to self

Although Pick and Gray had worked together for three years, Gray had no idea Pick was enduring health issues. Pick never advertised them, never asked for sympathy. Pick had listed her blood type on her Facebook comment and Gray knew she shared the same type.

Almost immediately, Gray was on the phone asking how she could get started. A series of tests at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville followed. Just three months after Gray first inquired about donating, she and Pick swapped kidneys last Sept. 14. Pick had found not only a new kidney and lease on life, but her guardian angel as well.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing she did. Jenn Pick is blessed to have her in her life,” said Tammy Winder, a teacher at Head Start, a Williamsport pre-school. “For Jen Gray to do that was just an amazing thing.”

“I was excited that she stepped up to do it but then I also got scared as it got closer. When she told me about her one surgery where she almost died on the table, then I panicked,” Pick said. “Afterward, I was excited when I found it worked and we were both doing well.”

Doing for others

Anyone who knows Gray well is not surprised that she so willingly performed a courageous and selfless act. That is how she has led her life. She has been on the bone marrow donation list for two decades. Doing for others flows through her. This might be her bravest and most selfless act, but her life has been defined by them.

“I’ve always been someone who does for others. I don’t know if it’s just because of my personality,” Gray said. “My daughter is married to a Williamsport police officer. She’s kind of like me and does for other people. It’s not because we’re special, it’s just who we are. There is so much negativity in the world and even when I try to do for myself, I find myself buying things for my granddaughters or for somebody else when I go shopping.”

It usually takes those who donate kidneys four weeks before they can return to work, but Gray was back in school 12 days later. She could have stopped there and said she had done enough, but Gray is doing more. Pick is, too. Both are doing all they can to advocate for organ donation.

This story had a happy ending. Gray and Pick want so many others in need to share that same feeling.

“I’ve said a couple times I don’t understand why more people don’t do it. If there is any inkling, with all the testing they do, that something isn’t going to go in your favor, they’re not going to do it. There is no proof that you going down to one kidney means you’re going to have problems,” Gray said.

“I guess a lot of people think it’s a big deal because we’re not family. But if you knew a kid needed a kidney but you never met the kid in your life and you were a match, it’s a child, why not do it? I could get a call any day saying I’m a bone marrow match for someone in another state who needs it and I’m going to get on that plane and do it even tough I never met the person.”

That attitude has helped turn Pick’s life around. Almost as soon as she woke up from surgery, Pick could feel her new kidney working. She returned to work soon after the surgery and has much more energy before. Her diet is no longer restricted and Pick is able to enjoy her family time that much more.

Every time Pick’s husband sees Gray, he gives her a hug. The same goes for Pick’s parents. Words and embraces, though, will never convey their gratitude for Gray’s gift. And while Pick’s 5- and 6-year-old daughters might not be able to fully comprehend what has happened, they will agree as time goes by.

‘Inspirational’

“In this day and age, it’s inspirational to know there are people out there who are willing to save someone’s life or make sure they can help someone live a better life,” Winder said. “It’s just amazing and I’m very thankful that Jen donated so she can be around to watch her kids grow up.”

Callie is doing her best to provide other children that same gift. Storm clouds have surrounded Callie for two years, but all she sees is sunshine.

“There’s a reason for all of it. We keep saying there’s some ultimate meaning. There’s something great that is going to happen,” Michelle said. “I tell God every day that if we get to keep her, I know she’s going to do amazing things.”

She already has.

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