When they found out a boy’s dreams had crashed, Pickett Elementary kids rallied to put them back on track
Mayra Bolaños sits at the dinner table, her fingers interlocked. The walls that surround her sport detailed drawings of vibrant race cars and motorcycles. In the back room, tires screech, motors rev, and gears shift as her ten-year-old son plays his favorite video game.
“He loves cars,” Mayra begins, tears welling in her eyes. “He says when he grows up he wants to be a race car driver. But he’s not going to be able to. He eventually won’t be able to move his legs.”
She explains that her son “started walking different when he was two. It made him feel bad because people would ask, ‘Why does he walk like that?’ When we went walking, he was always behind and sometimes fell. But I didn’t know why.”
She found out why in 2012, when Leonel Sanchez was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a rare, fatal disease that will creep into every muscle in his body, causing him to lose all mobility. Life expectancy for boys with Duchenne is just twenty-five.
Behind Mayra, Leonel shuffles into the room, shy, covering his face with dimpled hands. He peeks out and offers a smile, however, when his mom brings out more of his artwork. He even shows off a race car he built with Legos.
Duchenne may have put the brakes on Leonel’s dream of becoming a race car driver, but last spring a Pickett Elementary teacher and her students sped up Leonel’s dream so that he can live it now, while he still has use of his arms and legs. What they started gathered such momentum that it surpassed even their dreams.
Shifting into Gear
“I knew that we were coming up on that time of the year where we do letters,” remembers fifth grade language arts teacher Yvonne Saldana, “and we were also supposed to write a persuasive essay.” The year before, in 2013, she’d combined those two Texas Education Agency (TEA) requirements into a project in which students wrote letters to organizations asking for items for the school: art supplies, wall paint, a new drinking fountain, even roof repairs.
As the 2014 spring semester got underway, however, Ms. Saldana hadn’t hit on just the right project. “I wanted to make it a little bit more cross-curricular,” she recalls, so that the project incorporated math, science, and reading in addition to writing.
One weekend, third-grade teacher Rebecca Nolen mentioned that one of her students, Leonel, had talked about how he wouldn’t be anything when he grew up because he wasn’t going to grow up.
“Why does he have to wait until he grows up [to be something]?” Ms. Saldana asked. “You know what?” she told Ms. Nolen. “I’m going get my kids on board, and we’re going to make it happen. Just watch.”
On Monday, she told the class about Leonel. “They said, ‘We’re going to make his wishes come true!’ So I said, ‘Pen to paper, people!’” They named the persuasive writing project Leonel’s Wishes.
First, Ms. Saldana says, “I gave them some quick background on Duchenne.” Then the class went to the computer lab for further research. Students also got their parents’ permission to do more computer research at home. “I had a lot of kids who came back and said, ‘Ms. Saldana, it’s genetic,’ and other kids asked, ‘What does that mean?’ and I said, ‘It’s in your DNA,’ and they asked, ‘What is that?’”
“That’s how we got science involved,” Ms. Saldana explains. The kids’ fifth-grade science and math teacher, Christine Davis, talked to them about genetics and inheritance.
Next came organizing the letter-writing campaign. With 35 kids involved, Ms. Saldana broke the students into two groups. Half worked on Leonel’s racing wish and produced a list of places that had race tracks, go-karts, and remote control cars. The other group focused on Leonel’s other passion, art, and gathered a list of places that might furnish art supplies for him or display his work. Then Ms. Saldana assigned each student a company to which to write a letter. Most wrote to local businesses, while others wrote to NASCAR and the Indy 500.
“We talked about the parts of a persuasive letter,” says Ms. Saldana. “Tell the person what you want from the beginning—and then your next paragraph should give a little bit of information about Leonel.” And “then our next paragraph would be about his wishes” and how [the addressee] could help fulfill them.
“We did a lot of proofreading!” she says. Then “we printed the letters, they got to sign them, we put them in envelopes, we got stamps—we did them the old-fashioned way. Some of my kids had never seen an envelope. They’re so used to email, and texting, and Twitter—everything has to be 140 characters!” She adds wryly, “We went through quite a few envelopes.”
Picking Up the Pace
“Within a week we started getting the responses. Every day before we had language arts, it was mail time.” The kids waited, breathless, as Ms. Saldana read the mail. Then “they would clap,” she says. In total, the kids heard from twelve companies.
Morgan Fowler got a response from Framer’s Gallery owner Kimi Chapman, who donated four custom frames for Leonel’s artwork. Pickett Elementary’s principal, Natalia Ramback, granted Angelica de la Torre’s request for permission for Leonel to go to Austin’s Park n’ Pizza, after that company responded to Christian Franklin’s letter with tickets for Leonel and his family and offered reduced-rate tickets for Leonel’s whole class. Hector Montoya heard back from the owner of Races2U, a remote control car track, who sent two free tickets for Leonel and a friend.
One day, a package arrived. “Dear Victor,” wrote Smiley’s Racing Products owner Tom Lorenz in a letter enclosed for Victor Lopez. “Here is the racing suit you requested for Leonel. . . . Like you said, I think he’ll be so happy to get to ‘dress up and imagine what it feels like to race a car and feel the wind!’” Inside the box was a genuine racing suit tailored to Leonel’s measurements.
Not all students got results from their letters, but they’re still proud of their work. “I didn’t get a response, but we’re still working on it,” says Danika Mutin, whose letter invited an art gallery to display Leonel’s art. “I am sad about [Leonel‘s diagnosis]. I want him to live his dreams while he still can. We’re all working as a team to get this little small thing big enough for Leonel. We realize that he’s doing all of these great things because we’re helping him to do them.”
“He’s changed during the process,” observes Danika’s classmate, Lilianna Gonzales. “[Leonel] is getting to believe in himself more. He looks like he’s really happy since he got to do these things.” Madison Thornton adds, “He’s not as shy as he was before. He knows that people don’t think he’s weird just because he has a disease.”
Beyond the Finish Line
At the end of last school year, Leonel began transitioning into a wheelchair—but he didn’t do it alone. The fifth graders cheered him on as he eased into the chair and then raced a classmate who was on foot. The boy whose physical limitations were once a mystery to his classmates and others had become a bona fide celebrity.
“He says he’s famous at school,” Mayra reports. “[He] tells me, ‘Mama! All the girls come and talk to me.’ Everyone has been so helpful to us.”
As school starts back up, the momentum of Leonel’s Wishes continues. For example, Ms. Saldana says, “It’s in the works for Leonel to have an art show.” What began last year was “a powerful start to a lot of support that will carry Leonel through to fifth grade,” confirms Principal Ramback.
And Ms. Saldana’s students? As they step into middle school classrooms, she’s confident that they go knowing that “you don’t have to wait to be older or grow up to make a difference. One small thing can change a person’s life for the good.”
Bill Dollahite, a retired professional race car driver and owner of Driveway Austin, arranged a racing day for Leonel, complete with a racing suit, a trophy, and zips around the track in a red Ferrari and other racing cars. Watch video of Leonel’s special day online at KXAN.
To help with Leonel’s Wishes, email Yvonne Saldana.
The math behind Leonel’s Wishes? Ms. Davis and the kids estimated that donations totaled well over $1,000.