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North Hall Middle students decorate tree to honor coach’s fight with cancer

POSTED: December 24, 2008 5:00 a.m.
TOM REED/The Times

North Hall Middle School coach Debbie Wiley looks over some of the ornaments on a tree dedicated to her fight against breast cancer.

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Christmas trees adorned with ornaments aimed at raising funds for cancer research have graced the hallways of North Hall Middle School for the past seven years. But this year is the first a tree was decorated in honor of a faculty member battling cancer.

North Hall Middle School health students made pink ornaments to honor eighth-grade girls’ basketball coach Debbie Wiley.

The tree honoring Wiley is one of four that students decorated as part of "Wiley’s Woods," with ornament proceeds benefitting Relay for Life.

"I found out the first week of school, I have breast cancer," Wiley said. "They called me on a Saturday morning and said they wanted me in the office for surgery on Aug. 5. I said, ‘I can’t, that’s the first day of school (for teachers).’"

After four months, 33 radiation treatments and a lumpectomy, Wiley is still sprightly, bounding through an 8-2 girls basketball season so far.

The North Hall High School baseball team donated a live tree for the middle schoolers to cover with their homemade pink ornaments, each containing a personal message to Wiley written by the student who donated the ornament.

Three other trees, one for each middle school grade, stand in the hallway and bear student-made ornaments in honor or memory of students’ friends or family members. Students sold the ornaments for $2 during lunch.

Sherrye Bentley, the health teacher at North Hall Middle School who helps coordinate the Relay for Life fundraiser each year, said students raised $600 for Relay for Life. Bentley said she first encountered Wiley when she was a senior at North Hall High School, where Bentley was teaching health at the time.

In August, Wiley told her basketball team she had cancer. Wiley said the girls, their families and the school’s faculty members have been extremely supportive ever since. She said she’s touched when students ask her each day if she’s feeling OK.

Wiley said she’s proud she’s only missed six days of school so far this year.

Upon receiving her cancer diagnosis, Wiley said she made one thing clear from the get go.

"(School leaders) tried to get me to give up my girls’ basketball team, and I said, ‘No. I can’t give up my team,’" she said. "... I promised (the girls) I’d have all the energy they’d need for them to be better ball players."

Members of the eighth-grade girls’ basketball team said their coach’s dedication is an inspiration.

"Even when she does have cancer, she’s still so strong for us," said North Hall Middle School eighth-grader and basketball player Mackenzie Potts.

"She’s an inspiration to all of us," said Bentley. "She’s teaching 40 hours a week and then coaching, too."

Wiley said she feels very fortunate to be surrounded by so many caring students and faculty members.

"I feel so blessed. I’ve had so many people lift me up in their prayers," she said. "I can’t wait to read my messages on Christmas. I’ll spend an afternoon, I’m sure, in tears enjoying it. Everyday I want to sneak out and read just one."


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