When a dodgeball tournament uplifts a family — and a community

The charity event to support Rett syndrome research was a moving experience

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by Jackie Babiarz |

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Shortly after our daughter Cammy passed away on Dec. 13 due to complications of Rett syndrome, we were approached by Joe Kish, the assistant principal at Franklin Middle School, our youngest daughter Ryan’s school in Wheaton, Illinois. He asked about designating Cammy Can, the organization we created to raise funds for the International Rett Syndrome Foundation (IRSF), as one of the charities that would benefit from the school’s annual spring dodgeball tournament.

When we learned that the staff at Franklin Middle School had chosen Cammy Can, it made our hearts swell. The theme of the tournament, which was held in early March, was perfect: Lasting Legacies.

I have extensive expertise in holding fundraisers, which we did for Cammy for over 10 years, raising over $1 million for IRSF. I know how much behind-the-scenes work goes into organizing one. The organizing committee for the school’s tournament — which in addition to Kish included Haley Glavanovits, Allan Rovik, Julie Forde, Brianne Pearce, Lydia Kieser, and Linda Raffel — volunteered hours of their time to find sponsors and organize and run the event.

The number of other volunteers, which included parents, teachers, school administrators, other school staff, and even high school students, who donated their time to make the tournament happen is extraordinary. A record number of sponsors participated this year. We are so grateful for the support of our school, community, and extended family.

The dodgeball tournament is a one-of-a-kind community event held over several days to accommodate different groups, including fifth grade students and teachers, middle school students and teachers, high school football players, and first responders (during an event called Hero Night). It brings the community together and teaches several life lessons.

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A blurry photo taken in a middle school gym shows 10 seventh graders holding up a large purple banner with a cartoon girl in pony tails and text that reads "Cammy Can Reverse Rett."

Cammy ‘s sister, Ryan, far right, and other players on the seventh grade dodgeball team from Franklin Middle School, hold up a Cammy Can banner. (Courtesy of Jackie

Leading up to the event, teachers at Franklin handed out purple paper feathers. Students then wrote on the feathers their answers to the question “What do you want your legacy to be?” Along with Raffel, a fellow mom and volunteer, I had tears in my eyes as we read more than 500 responses on feathers that we used to create a pair of wings for a photo. Our favorite response was from an eighth grader who wrote, “To be a cancer survivor.” He understood the assignment.

My husband, Bill, delivered a beautiful speech about what legacy means and what Cammy’s legacy is. He encouraged attendees to think about how they want to be remembered. I looked around the gym and saw that the students were intently listening and truly pondering this important question. I saw parents soaking in our family’s pain.

More than just a game

The lessons students learn from dodgeball are invaluable. They learn to be good sports, and equally important, gracious in defeat. The teams cheered for one another, embraced the underdogs when they won, and told the defeated players they had played a great game. I saw members of losing teams smiling for the winners.

The students respected authority and followed the rules, which were important to keep everyone safe. They patiently waited for their turn to play. They understood that referees couldn’t see everything that happened, and they competed with honor and integrity by walking off the court when they were hit.

Time and time again, I witnessed an underdog story developing. Extremely confident teams twice the size of other squads got knocked out by smaller ones. Underdogs refused to quit, knowing that anyone could be defeated on the right day.

The students and parents thanked the staff members and volunteers for running the fundraiser. That may seem like a little thing, but a thank-you goes a long way. Speaking of, I’d like to thank the parents who took the time to think about and discuss with their children what a legacy truly means.

The event culminated with Hero Night, in which first responders from all over Illinois organize teams to play their favorite childhood games for charity. A gym full of heroes were there to support our family’s own superhero. It was the most emotional night of the week for us.

We had no idea that a large group of Cammy’s teachers, aides, nurses, and therapists from Jefferson Early Childhood Center, Bower Elementary School, Monroe Middle School, and Wheaton North High School would be there. Flanked by members of the Wheaton police and fire departments, staff members from Cammy’s schools stood up with Bill and me to receive a $10,000 check in Cammy’s honor from the First Trust Cares Foundation, to be delivered to the IRSF.

A photo of a big group of people in a school gymnasium. The photo is taken from across the gym, so you can't see anyone's face clearly, but most of them are wearing purple T-shirts, and some of them are holding up a giant symbolic donation check.

Staff from several schools and members of the Wheaton, Illinois, fire and police departments join Jackie and Bill Babiarz in accepting a check from the First Trust Cares Foundation, donated in Cammy’s honor for the International Rett Syndrome Foundation. (Courtesy of Jackie

We were humbled when we noticed that the Wheaton firefighters and police officers had made Cammy Can shirts for their teams. In a poetic ending to the event, members of the Wheaton Fire Department, in their purple Cammy Can shirts, lifted the championship trophy. In doing so, they also lifted Cammy and our family more than I could describe. When a group of the kindest humans with the same inspiration, passion, and goal come together, you can’t lose.

I know Cammy was with us that entire night, smiling and watching from the best vantage point.

Eleven people pose on the floor of a school gym. They are all wearing purple T-shirts. Some make the No. 1 sign with their hands, while a woman in the center of the photo holds a trophy.

Members of the Wheaton, Illinois, Fire Department are this year’s  Hero Night champions. They are pictured here with Jackie Babiarz, holding the trophy, and her husband, Bill, to her right. (Courtesy of Jackie

Note: Rett Syndrome News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Rett Syndrome News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Rett syndrome.


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