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Preschool raises money for Rally Foundation, classmate who beat cancer
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Miller Pennington, left, and James Wilkins, right, help Asher Rock, middle load coins into a jug as part of a fundraiser for the Rally Foundation. - photo by Nick Bowman

Asher Rock runs around Children of Grace Preschool at Grace Episcopal Church just like every other kid. Every now and again, he might stub a toe or catch his shoulder on something, but his mother, Josie, said he laughs it off and keeps going.

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Asher Rock. - photo by Nick Bowman
Asher, 5, is blind in his right eye after being diagnosed with retinoblastoma in 2014 when he was just 4 months old. The cancer on his retina has caused his eyesight to deteriorate over time.

“The more treatments he had, the more his vision went away,” Josie said.

Even with the treatments and his limited eyesight, Asher has been a part of Children of Grace for the past four years and during the month of September, he and his classmates helped raise money for the Rally Foundation, which helps support childhood cancer research.

“The fact that they're supporting Asher, obviously that in itself means more than anything,” said Marcus, Asher’s father. 

Having declared the “Penny War,” preschoolers were able to bring in coins and bills to add to their age group’s total. Each penny or bill added a certain amount of points to the total. The war was turned even more competitive by silver coins being counted as negative points. Children could put those into the leader’s jug to push them out of the lead.

Altogether, more than 600 pennies were collected along with about 800 quarters, dimes and nickels. Students also raised $1,800 in bills to bring the grand total to $3,196.42.

“We started off hoping for $2,000,” said Ansley Forrester, director of the preschool. “But this has been so meaningful because I think the kids are really grasping it.”

She said the children went through their piggy banks and even started lemonade stands to bring in more money.

“I think it just shows not only the school spirit, but also the servant’s heart,” said Meg McPeek, assistant director of the preschool. “Not only do kids understand they're giving back to Rally, but they're also helping their buddy who's down the hall.”

And that little kid down the hall has been through it all, having cancer for almost his entire life. Josie spotted the cancer by happenstance after the flash went off on her camera when she was taking a photo of her three-month-old.

She was in her last year of nursing school, so she knew the signs when she looked at the photo and Asher’s right eye “glowed white.”

“It's a tell-tell sign of retinoblastoma, one of the rare cancers for children,” Josie said.

It was Grade D, almost as bad as it could be, so they started chemotherapy as soon as possible. Every four weeks for six months, Asher was sedated so he could receive the chemo.

After the six months of chemo, Asher continued going in for exams under anesthesia so they could see if the cancer was progressing, spreading or creating more tumors. If there were more tumors, “they would kind of blast them with a laser,” Josie said.

Celebrating perseverance

Read other stories in this series at gainesvilletimes.com/cancer.

Finally, in 2017, they flew to New York to see a specialist who used a new treatment called intra-arterial chemotherapy.

Josie said they go through the femoral artery up at the top of his thigh to deliver the chemotherapy drug straight to the ophthalmic artery behind the eye.

“It was pretty rough on him, but he had three rounds of it and after the third round of it, his tumor showed signs of complete calcification,” Josie said.

And that was good. Calcification meant the cancer wasn’t growing and he hasn’t had any recurrences since that treatment, but fibrosis growth, or scarring, in Asher’s eye is still causing trouble. He’s having to do exams under anesthesia every eight weeks to keep track of its status.

Though he stopped getting any sort of treatment in mid 2018 — Josie said there’s no treatment for fibrosis —  there’s a chance Asher could lose his eye in the years to come. It all depends on how the fibrosis progresses. So for now, it’s a “watch-and-wait kind of thing.”

“It's horrible,” Josie said. “It's a roller coaster ride, because you can't help your child, but you'd do anything you can to take that away. You never know what's going to happen with cancer … To watch and wait, it's horrible. You honestly can't predict what’s going to happen.”

So they do their best to shield Asher from everything that's going on. They treat him like any other kid when he’s outside the hospital walls and try to forget about the cancer and the treatments as much as possible.

While they’re at the hospital, though, Asher thinks he owns the place. Josie said he calls it his hospital. He knows all the terms and even “bosses the nurses and doctors around because he knows what he’s scared of and what he is OK with.”

He even has his own music playlist he makes them play before he’s put under anesthesia.

“He loves Queen,” Josie said, laughing.

She said Asher’s “happy-go-lucky,” “high-spirited” and “has a great sense of humor,” too.

And seeing Asher’s friends have the same attitude while bringing in money to support their friends is more than she could ask for.

“It's very heartwarming,” Josie said. “It just really pulls at your heartstrings to see these friends that have grown up with Asher over the past few years just showing their support and going out of their way to do this for childhood cancer. There's no words as a parent. You can't thank people enough.”

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Pennies collected by kids at Children of Grace Preschool waiting to be donated to the Rally Foundation. - photo by Nick Bowman
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