Beanies for Nat brings out best from Neveln Knights

Published 6:24 am Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Inside an English Learners classroom at Neveln Elementary School, Montse and Vicky Vargas were hard at work creating miniature beanies of many different colors on Monday morning.

Threading together strings of yarn through a cardboard circle, the third grade students created several different hats, some made from pink and gray string, to one representing Austin Public Schools with their colors of red and white.

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“My sister beat me,” Montse teased, while Vicky giggled as she finished a pom on top of her finished beanie. “She’s very quick.”

What appeared to be a simple art project actually was a school-wide effort to support someone who was fighting a battle that no one should have to fight, let alone a kid: cancer.

Neveln Principal David Wolff and his students prepared a box filled with miniature beanies to ship off to Love Your Melon in the Twin Cities. These beanies will be part of a larger art project for Nathalia Hawley, a 14-year-old teen from Duluth, who was diagnosed with terminal osteosarcoma. Photo submitted

More than 350 miniature beanies were created for 14-year-old Nathalia Hawley of Duluth, who was diagnosed with osteosarcoma about two years ago. These beanies were representative of similar ones that Hawley had made for the team members of Love Your Melon, a hat and apparel brand based in the Twin Cities, that focuses on raising money for pediatric cancer and to place a hat on each child battling cancer in the United States.

To date, Love Your Melon gave more than $6.1 million to fight against childhood cancer, and gave more than 160,000 hats to children who are still fighting the illness today.

EL teacher Nicole Stotts-Thompson’s friend Taylor Freihl knows Hawley directly, and had brought the project idea to Stotts-Thompson’s EL students. While slightly cautious at first, Stotts-Thompson then decided to go to Principal David Wolff to get it approved.

“I was surprised when Mr. Wolff said ‘absolutely’ and asked if there was a way to make the project open to the whole school,” she said. “I’m so appreciative that Neveln was very supportive in this project in the midst of such a busy time during the school year with testing … I didn’t know how the students would react, but it was amazing.”

So she, and her fellow EL teacher Stephanie Garbisch, spent some time with their students on how to create these beanies for Nat. Which, lead to their EL students becoming “experts” and teaching fellow classmates. However, learning about Hawley instilled a wide array of emotions for students getting to know her story.

“I felt sorry for (Nathalia),” Montse said while creating a beanie.

“It made me feel sad,” Vicky said in response.

Montse Vargas, a Neveln Elementary School third grade student, works diligently while trying to finish a beanie for the Love Your Melon nonprofit organization, which raises awareness for childhood cancer. 

Unfortunately, it was recently revealed that Hawley’s condition was terminal and that she only has a life expectancy of several weeks. However, it was Hawley’s creativity and kind-hearted actions of making miniature beanies for the team members of Love Your Melon that sparked the movement #BeaniesForNat, which asked people to create these beanies for Nat as a final art project and tribute to her.

This news was devastating to many students. Although they never met Hawley personally, they still felt a sense of urgency to complete this project for a fellow kid who needed something to bring a smile to her in her last few weeks.

Neveln EL teacher Stephanie Garbisch

Despite having multiple snow days and having only one day in school to send out a shipment of the beanies, Garbisch and Stotts-Thompson learned that students like the Vargas twins, had taken the initiative to make some beanies at home with the help of their parents while off from school.

“They wanted to know how Nat was doing, and they kept asking about her life,” Garbisch said. “These students got so excited to help her and offer their support in this way.”

A project like this brought questions to educators in the classroom: what’s cancer? How does one get cancer? Do people live on after getting diagnosed? While talking about a difficult subject matter in the classroom brought some additional awareness for students, it also opened up conversations for those who had their lives touched by cancer.

Some had shared their relatives who were diagnosed with cancer. Others who have experienced trauma and fear living in refugee camps, were able to show empathy toward those who were struggling to cope with a diagnosis.

“To share their stories and being able to understand the trauma, shows how receptive students here are,” Stotts-Thompson said. “Nathalia’s story really inspired me.”

A mini beanie that was made with Austin school colors sits on a table.

For each little beanie that was made and sent to Love Your Melon, the company had promised to send each person a Love Your Melon beanie from the shipping address as a way to thank them for their support for Hawley. So far, there were 1,400 boxes sent over to the company.

Garbisch and Stotts-Thompson said many of their students didn’t have proper winter gear to keep them warm, and that gesture was something they were grateful for.

“We have a hat and mittens tree that people donate to so that kids who need them can grab hats,” Garbisch said. “We didn’t know how much the outpouring of support those little beanies could get.”

How cancer shapes lives

The project for Love Your Melon may have been focused on Hawley, however, her story touched Stotts-Thompson on a more personal level that the Neveln teacher rarely discussed openly until recently.

“I had leukemia when I was a child,” she said while Garbisch stood nearby for support. “This little girl has a wonderful spirit. It made me proud, that Neveln came through when it matters the most. I never talked about it, and never mentioned it to anyone before. But, it’s so important to have people share their story and Nathalia’s story really touched me. I look up to her so much.”

Neveln EL teacher Nicole Stotts-Thompson

Having been diagnosed with cancer as a child was difficult, and it wasn’t a subject many often choose to talk about. Stotts-Thompson said after she was treated for cancer, she rarely discussed her experiences and wanted to forget what had happened to her while growing up.

However, having Hawley’s story come close to home, Stotts-Thompson found strength to acknowledge her own experiences and began to open up with those who support her unconditionally, including Garbisch.

“I’ve known Nicole for six years, working together in the same classroom as a co-teacher and as a close friend, and she’s not one to mention that she had cancer,” she said quietly. “As I’m watching you, I’m seeing you heal. Cancer has really affected you, and it still does.”

As the project wraps up, Neveln Elementary School students said they felt a sense of accomplishment as they watch the products of their labor and love head to Love Your Melon to put a smile on Hawley’s face for one last time.

“That little girl will know that she is so loved,” Garbisch said.