When the school year began, Eileen Elswick, a fifth grade science and social studies teacher at Hayes Intermediate had an adult conversation with her young students. She explained to them that some days she may seem sad and the reason for her sadness was that her beloved father, Justin Schlesinger, was battling a fatal disease known as Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Sprinkled throughout her lesson plans, Elswick shared stories and pictures of her father to her classes. They bonded over these humorous retellings of Schlesinger’s life and when Elswick and her family wanted to put together a fundraiser to raise money and awareness for the ALS Association, her students decided they too would join the fight against this disease.
While the Elswick and Schlesinger family raised money outside of school to support Team Freckle Fairies during the ALS Association’s Walk to Defeat ALS on Sept. 30, the students at Hayes Intermediate raised money via hat day. Together, they raised $2,878; the student-led effort attributed $729 toward the total sum.
One thing the students really looked forward to was the mini walk that was planned Sept. 28 at the school. They couldn’t wait to meet the man they felt they knew. Schlesinger couldn’t wait to meet them as well.
“He was so excited to be involved in the walk and was truly looking forward to it,” said Elswick.
Unfortunately, Schlesinger died two weeks prior to the walk in his honor.
After the death of her father, Elswick wondered whether she should cancel the event. She knew it would be tough but, much like her father, she pushed through the difficulties.
Before the walk took place, she shared a presentation with the school about her father and his battle with ALS.
“I wanted to show them what ALS means, what it does and who it affects,” she said.
Elswick fought back tears during the presentation, but some of her kids couldn’t help but cry. She said they have helped her get through the hard times with their kind words and their determination to fight ALS.
“They have been amazing,” she said. “I couldn’t believe how much they get it and how genuine they are.”
She received dozens of cards and well wishes, but something one of her students who lost a parent said will always stick with her.
“She told me that death ends a life but it will never end your relationship with your dad,” said Elswick. “I never thought I would be taking advice from a 10-year-old, but their support has been so comforting.”
In addition to her students and work, Elswick and her family are finding comfort through activism.
Shortly after Schlesinger was diagnosed with ALS – he unknowingly battled the disease for six years before he was officially diagnosed this spring – her family joined the local ALS Chapter.
“We decided we needed to rally together and help pay it forward,” Elswick explained.
She said her father has instilled that value in her family by always putting others before himself.
“He never complained and he persevered through everything.”
Elswick said even a fall that broke his neck a few months ago and left him wheelchair bound couldn’t dampen his spirits.
“Even when he was stuck in that power chair and completely dependent on other people, he never once said ‘why me’ or ‘why is this happening’,” she said. “He was strong, determined and absolutely amazing.”
Even though the walks in the honor of all of those who have been touched by this disease have ended, the fight against ALS goes on. The Schlesinger and Elswick families are still accepting donations in Justin’s name.
To donate, go to http://webcsoh.alsa.org click on the ‘Walk to Defeat ALS button’ and search for either Eileen Elswick or Team Freckle Fairies. Proceeds go toward helping the ALS Association find a cause and cure for the debilitating and fatal disease that affects more than 5,600 new people each year. It is estimated by the ALSA that 30,000 Americans are currently living with the disease.