It’s back-to-school time for the entire Babiak family.
Teachers Jason and Alison are back to their classrooms, and their sons, 10-year-old Mason and 8-year-old Dawson, are starting fifth and third grades respectively.
And, for the first time, Dawson is beginning the school year with no looming health issues.
No more chemotherapy. No more hospital stays. And, hopefully, no more middle-of-the-night trips to the emergency room.
Just periodic monitoring to ensure the acute lymphoblastic leukemia he’s battled for years hasn’t returned.
The family’s calendar used to revolve around medical appointments.
“We are getting back to normal,” Alison said. “We had a couple of vacations. And I don’t even know when Dawson’s next appointment is, off the top of my head.”
Plus, now that’s he’s healthy, his parents let Dawson adopt his first pet: a bearded dragon, with the unlikely name of Fluffy. According to Dawson, he’s wanted a lizard ever since reading a book about reptiles as a preschooler, and he chose the name because of the lizard’s spikes.
Fluffy is an easygoing lizard, barely blinking an eye as Dawson and Mason erect a tent in the yard so the scaly creature has a place to play during one of the last few days of summer.
Hoping and praying
In November 2014, when Dawson was just 4, Alison noticed some odd red spots on his chest and face.
At the pediatrician’s suggestion, they took him into a lab for blood tests.
Hours later, they received a call saying Dawson needed to go to Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital right away, despite a blinding early-winter snowstorm.
He was admitted that night to begin treatment for leukemia. The next few years became a blur of hospital stays, treatments, setbacks and progress.
The following fall, as Dawson began kindergarten, the Babiaks visited nearby Tanger Outlets for back-to-school shopping.
Almost immediately, they walked out empty-handed, the future looming uncertain.
“It was too difficult. Just the thought … ,” Alison paused, not articulating her thought. “It was tough for us as parents.”
Jason shared that they were tempted to “put him in a bubble” and keep Dawson home. Instead they chose the classroom, hoping and praying things would go well.
They worked closely with the teachers, staff and parents in Wayland, where Alison teaches, to make Dawson’s classroom a safe haven, with germs kept at bay as much as possible.
Dawson had the freedom to rest in the office if he tired. Some days were half days and some days he couldn’t go to school at all because he felt sick or because colds or the flu circulated through the school.
Finally, when Dawson finished his cancer treatments last spring, the school hosted a celebration.
“It’s really nice to have the school so involved, to have them there with us every step of the way,” Alison said.
‘Children are struggling’
During Dawson’s treatments, his parents became part of a community of caregivers and other parents at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
“It’s like everybody becomes your family, and everybody there is totally supportive,” Jason said. “They always say it’s a family you never want to be part of, but you’re so glad they are there.”
The Babiaks quickly found themselves looking for ways to make a positive impact on the lives of other patients.
They began by collecting Crayola products in 2015, donating more than $5,000 of art supplies to the children’s hospital. An old photo shows little Dawson peeking through an avalanche of crayons and markers.
Next, Jason, who teaches science at Hopkins High School, invited his students and staff to get involved. With the school district’s support, the family delivered a busload of toys to the hospital each of the past two years.
“Collecting donations is something we’ve done and the students have embraced,” Jason said.
At a family meeting this summer, the Babiaks decided to continue the tradition.
Jason recalls how something as simple as a Matchbox car would lift Dawson’s spirits or distract him during medical tests.
“There are other kids that need help,” Jason said. “Until we started going to DeVos Children’s Hospital, we didn’t realize there is a whole host of children with adult problems. You don’t realize, until you are there, that children are struggling.”
For the Babiaks, the annual toy drives are a culmination of what they believe and who they are.
And that won’t change, even as life returns to normal.
“The power of prayer is very important to us. And we’re educators. When people reach out to us, we try to encourage them, to listen, to try and help as much as we can,” Jason said.
The Babiaks say the love and support from others reminded them to be hopeful, hoping and praying for better days.
“Especially as many children head back to school, we are reminded that we are all an integral part of each others’ lives,” Alison added.