Audrey Walsh, 41, is thrilled that her daughter Ella, 7, has battled back from cancer. The Walsh family has created Ella's Retreat, an organization that has already provided lodging for about 20 families with sick children.

Audrey Walsh, 41, is thrilled that her daughter Ella, 7, has battled back from cancer. The Walsh family has created Ella’s Retreat, an organization that has already provided lodging for about 20 families with sick children.

by Jodi Benjamin

Several weeks ago, Audrey Walsh, 41, donated $10 and received three raffle tickets from one of her students, who were fundraising for the American Cancer Society. Walsh is a teacher in the Life Skills Support class for special needs students at Springfield High School. She was eager to support the fight against cancer and proud of her student’s efforts, but soon dismissed the incident and returned to her hectic life as a teacher and mother of three — that is, until the call came.

On Sunday, June 1, Walsh learned that she had been randomly selected as the first-prize raffle winner at the American Cancer Society Relay For Life, entitling her to two Visa gift cards with an aggregate value of $1,000.

The story could end here — but it doesn’t. Walsh’s cancer connection runs deep. In 2005, she lost her father, five months after his diagnosis with multiple myeloma, an experience that she describes as a “devastating call to action.” After her father’s death, she made a concerted effort to support local drives that benefited cancer organizations.

Several years later, Walsh’s eldest child, Emily, was thankfully misdiagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a soft tissue tumor that starts in the muscle. About six months later, in the cruelest of ironies, Walsh’s youngest child, two-year-old Ella (today she is seven), developed a mass under her eye: rhabdomyosarcoma — and this time, the diagnosis was accurate. Ella suffered through 43 weeks of chemotherapy and then relocated to Boston with her mother for six weeks of proton radiation, which was not yet available in the Philadelphia area. Ella’s father brought her siblings up to visit as often as possible. During this difficult period that lasted six weeks, the Walsh Family received free lodging from a nonprofit organization in Boston called Christopher’s Haven.

In 2010, with Ella on the mend and proton radiation now available in Philadelphia, Walsh and her husband, Joe, realized that other families would begin traveling to this area to obtain treatment for their sick children. Paying it forward, the Walshes created Ella’s Retreat, an organization that has already provided lodging for about 20 families. Walsh and her family will donate some of their Relay For Life raffle winnings to Ella’s Retreat. They will also allocate some of the money toward a summer vacation to celebrate the five-year anniversary of Ella’s being cancer free.

Although the Walsh Family’s story is particularly striking, the Relay For Life, which took place at Upper Dublin High School during the last weekend in May, offered countless examples of the goodness of the human spirit. Jason Pane, assistant principal and athletic director of Springfield High School, covered the cost of the dunk tank so that all the money raised at this popular attraction could be donated directly to the American Cancer Society. Children at The Early Childhood Center at Beth Tikvah B’nai Jeshurun in Erdenheim baked cupcakes for cancer survivors and their caregivers. Christina Fusca, an Upper Dublin High School student, walked 35 miles to demonstrate her support for the fight against cancer.

During the Relay For Life, Upper Dublin High School’s Cardinal Stadium opened its gates to cancer survivors and their caregivers; to students from Upper Dublin, Wissahickon, Springfield and Germantown Academy; and to throngs of community members seeking fun in the name of a good cause. There was a steady stream of carnival-like activities, from wing-eating, pie-eating and hula hoop contests to “Finish the Lyrics,” “Ms. Relay” and a craft fair. There were also powerful reminders of the event’s purpose: a celebratory lap taken by cancer survivors and their caregivers, an opportunity to remember loved ones during a nighttime illumination ceremony and the release of 18 white doves as a symbol of hope and peace.

This local event, called the Relay For Life of the Wissahickon Valley, is one of over 5,000 organized across the country and around the globe, making Relay For Life the world’s largest movement to fight cancer.

So far, the Wissahickon Valley Relay For Life has raised about $170,000 for the American Cancer Society this year. Donations are still being accepted until the end of August. You can contribute at www.relayforlife.org/pawv or through Jen Stypinski at 215-985-5339. To participate in the spring 2015 event, which is preceded by a dog walk fundraiser this fall, contact Jodi Benjamin at 215-793-4097 or bjls@comcast.net.

Given her personal experience, Audrey Walsh best captures the significance of the fight against cancer by saying, “I just want to thank the organization for supporting a cause that has dramatically affected my life. Without cancer research and the support of organizations like the American Cancer Society and events such as Relay For Life, my daughter’s outcome may have been different, so I will forever be grateful to organizations that support families in the position of fighting cancer.”

  • Hartwell Lane

    The Walsh Family are an awesome bunch who are truly paying it forward. I just found their website (www.ellasretreat.org) and saw that they have a concert organized for July 13th as part of the Bryn Mawr Twilight Concert Series. It looks like a fun way to support a great cause. My family will definitely be there!