When fourth-grader Elena Rodriguez was called down to the principal's office at Roslyn Road Elementary School on Thursday, Nov. 17, she wasn't nervous. Her mom, Susan, had already told her there would be an afternoon birthday surprise for her that day.
But when Principal Paul Kirk escorted Elena to the school's back parking lot after the final bell rang, she figured something big was up.
And she was right.
There, along with her mom, dad, brother, sister, aunt, cousin and grandparents, stood the entire student body lined up next to the parking lot holding pink balloons and "Elena Rocks" signs. As Elena emerged from the school doors, the students joined in a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday." Even more amazing to the 10-year-old cancer survivor was a pink firetruck and a handsome firefighter dressed in a pink uniform greeted her with a bouquet of roses.
"At first I was nervous. I didn't know what was going on," said Elena. "But then I thought, this is all for me. It made me feel special."
At 13 months old, Elena was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a form of cancer that affects children. According to her father, Paul, although Elena's cancer was successfully treated by surgically removing her tumor, the cancer disrupted her immune system, resulting in the production of harmful antibodies that attacked Elena's brain and caused seizures. To combat her autoimmune problems, Elena has received several rounds of chemotherapy treatment and has endured monthly hospital visits for immune treatments for most of her life.
"It's been so much a part of her routine that she really takes it all in stride," Rodriguez said. "She's quite comfortable in a hospital setting."
Elena underwent four brain surgeries in the past year to alleviate the seizures. And yet, aside from a ski helmet she wears occasionally in gym class to protect her healing skull, Elena has enjoyed most of the daily routines of a typical fourth-grader
"Last year was tough, but we're definitely seeing a marked improvement in Elena's health over the last few months," Rodriguez said. "We are so fortunate to live in such a supportive community. We are blessed with amazing families, neighbors and friends and really appreciate the caring teachers, nurse and staff at Roslyn Road School. I can't tell you how much Relay for Life and the Pink Firetruck surprise today have boosted our spirits. In particular, it really means a lot to Elena to be able to use her birthday celebration to help raise cancer awareness."
As co-chair of Barrington's Relay for Life, Joanne Dalessandro was impressed by the dedication of Elena's brother, Nick, and his relay team (called "Elena Rocks" in honor of Elena), which raised more than $16,000 in contributions for the American Cancer Society. Dalessandro contacted Buffalo Grove firefighter Steve Rusin, a member of PINK HEALS of Northern Illinois, who volunteered to create the birthday surprise for Elena. The Pink Firetruck, the only one in the state of Illinois, promotes cancer awareness to families and communities.
Firefighter Rusin hoisted a pink ladder out of the truck for Elena to climb so that she could add her thoughts in writing on the side of the truck as hundreds of cancer survivors have done in the past.
"I'm glad I'm a survivor," Elana wrote, as her friends and family cheered her on.
Elena and her younger sister Sofia were whisked up to the firetruck's passenger seats, while her brother and his friend Matt Rowley sat outside the cabin. The sirens blared and, with an escort from a Barrington Fire Department truck, off they went for a tour of the village and a stop to receive a birthday cake and cupcakes from SweetPea Cupcakes and to pick up presents from her grandparents at Learning Express at the Ice House mall. Finally, the Pink Firetruck took them home where they were welcomed by a waiting group of family, neighbors and friends.