HALE CENTER, TX (KCBD) - For four years in a row, students at Hale Center ISD's Akin Elementary School have raised more money than any other school in country for the Kay Yow Cancer Fund.
The fundraising efforts began after a Hale Center ISD teacher, Mary Joe Chandler, died from cancer in 2015. Chandler taught at Hale Center ISD for 18 years.
Less than 200 students have participated in the fundraising efforts each year, but those students have produced some big results.
The school changed its charity fundraising efforts to the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, established in 2007, to help raise money for women's cancer research. Kay Yow was an NCAA women's basketball coach for North Carolina State University. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1987 and passed away in 2009.
Linda Pshigoda, a P.E. teacher at Akin Elementary, played for Coach Yow and went to the Final Four with her in 1998.
"At first, we didn't have a clue it was a contest," Pshigoda said. "It was just me doing it for my college coach and the teacher we just lost."
In 2015, the four to nine year old students raised $12,663 in the Play4Kay initiative. In 2016, they raised $13,218. In 2017, they raised $19,186. And in 2018, they raised $16,883.
Students and community come together each year, driven by a desire to help teachers battling cancer.
"Just here in the hallways, those kids know who they are fighting for," Pshigoda said. "I think if you ask them, I don't think any of us had a clue on how big it could be. I think when you see these little kids going up to the door, you can't tell them no because their hearts are in the right place."
"We have teachers who have cancer and I want them to feel better," student Ryan Baker said.
"[Fundraising] is for people who have cancer so they can get healthy and survive the journey," 7-year-old student Ezekiel Flores said. "And, so they can have hope."
First grade teacher Kim Rowell was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2013. She says she is encouraged by her students going above and beyond for her and other women.
"My daughter, when she found out I had cancer, she was young and I couldn't see her for four weeks because I was doing the radioactive iodine, which would really hurt her thyroid," Rowell said. "When she found out her friends were helping, she got really excited. It brings a tear to your eye because they love it and are willing to help out each other."
Rowell seeks treatment at MD Anderson in Houston, the cancer center receiving a major grant from the Kay Yow Cancer Fund for ovarian cancer research. No matter the cancer, Rowell knows fundraising for research is vital for her and others.
"It does help a lot of people and not just me," Rowell said. "It shows other schools and other communities that, yes, we can stick up for our people and help them out."
Akin Elementary was honored at the 2018 NCAA Women's Final Four in Columbus, Ohio. Kay Yow Cancer Fund board member Marsha Sharp also visited the school to thank the students and community.
"The fundraising that has taken place at Hale Center Elementary School is unprecedented anywhere in the country," Sharp said.
"The money they raised will join other efforts across the country to fund cancer research. One of the major grants given through the Kay Yow Cancer Fund is to MD Anderson in Houston for an ovarian cancer project. They are closing in on a prevention technique which will be life-changing for many women and families. There are many others across the country which are funded through Kay Yow. Linda Pshigoda is a champion in this fight. She played for Coach Yow and I know without a doubt how proud Kay would be of her player. Her efforts have brought positive attention to the community of Hale Center and also to the Kay Yow Cancer Fund. As a member of their board of directors I can say we are immensely grateful and a little emotionally overwhelmed by their efforts. Bless all of you."