Glad to be a Grad
Teen with bone cancer graduates with her eighth-grade class
By Devin Banerjee
San Jose Mercury News
June 16, 2009 -- From her wheelchair backstage Tuesday, Leanna Tran looked over a ceremony that just three months ago she doubted she would be able to attend.
Tapping her foot to the bluesy swing of the jazz band she once played with, the 14-year-old appeared comforted -- flanked by her sister at the chair handles and by Tom Beninger, her former science teacher. Since March, when Leanna was diagnosed with cancer in her right leg, Beninger has led a fundraising campaign toward a goal of $10,000 for her treatment.
But before Leanna crossed the stage as Davis Intermediate School's first 2009 graduate, Beninger announced to the audience at the San Jose Civic Auditorium that $20,000 had been raised from across California -- and the cash continues to flow. As school and district administrators stood in ovation, several audience members raised signs reading, "We love you, Leanna."
"It was a little scary when I found out about the cancer," Leanna said in a soft tone before Tuesday's ceremony.
Leanna has been unable to attend school since chemotherapy started in March, but she had already met the district's graduation requirements, Beninger said. She looks forward to beginning her freshman year at Oak Grove High School this fall.
Leanna was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in her right femur in late March -- just four months after her father was laid off from his job. Beninger, a seventh-grade life science teacher at Davis Intermediate, decided without hesitation that he wanted to help. So as the chemotherapy claimed Leanna's hair, he shaved his own head and encouraged others to do the same.
The eventual result was the Shave or Dye fundraiser earlier this month. Students and community members paid $5 to either have their heads shaved or their hair dyed, in solidarity with Leanna. Combined with other fundraising efforts -- many of which, Leanna's sister noted, were conducted through Facebook -- the campaign Beninger began in March has helped pay for the cancer treatment at Stanford Hospital and its extension facilities. Leanna will undergo limb salvage surgery on June 23 to remove her knee and the cancerous tumor.
"I'm overwhelmed with the community response," Beninger said after the ceremony. "I've been on this roller coaster since the end of March, and it's all really powerful because she didn't think she would graduate."
Oak Grove District Superintendent Manny Barbara applauded Beninger's efforts in a speech at Tuesday's ceremony.
"He does it because he wants to," the superintendent said of Beninger. "He does it because he's passionate about it."
And while Leanna's mother continues to work and her sister has finished her final year of high school, her father remains at home to monitor their daughter's treatment.
Leanna also gave up running as well as her saxophone and flute, both of which she had played as a member of the Davis jazz band. But while her friends and family have sometimes feared the worst, Leanna has responded well to her chemotherapy sessions. And on Tuesday, as her sister prepared to roll her across the stage as the ceremony's first graduate, she seemed completely at ease -- just one graduate among the 381 others in the auditorium.
"Nothing feels different right now," she said. "Everyone has just been really supportive."
Beninger echoed this sentiment, noting that while Leanna's condition creates a "horrible situation" for those around her, it has shown the school's community how to come together for a cause.
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Copyright (c) 2009, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.
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