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Letters bring Levittown fifth graders and cancer survivors together

Barbara Wasserman of Massapequa hugs Molly Leary, 10,

Barbara Wasserman of Massapequa hugs Molly Leary, 10, a fifth grader who wrote to her in a letter-writing campaign for survivors and those battling cancer, on Wednesday in Levittown. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Levittown fifth graders in Mr. Schwartz' class recently mailed 800 letters across the nation to people with cancer, encouraging them, praising their courage and offering them friendship.

On Wednesday, the students' kindness was returned as 35 of those they wrote to, many from Long Island, came to thank them at Abbey Lane Elementary School. Some of them arrived bringing flowers and gift bags for the kids.

Molly Leary, 10, got to meet the woman she wrote to, Barbara Wasserman, 68, of Massapequa. They talked about Wasserman's positive attitude, and how that helped her overcome breast cancer.

Molly said she put a lot of thought into her letter.

"I wanted to say she was very brave and she was not alone," Molly said. "I felt happy that I was helping someone feel stronger."

Wasserman, a former teacher at Abbey who is five years clear of cancer, said the letter cheered her.

"I was touched that the class would try to change people's lives," Wasserman said.

Richard Schwartz, for his part, said he had more in mind than teaching about the disease when he started the letter-writing campaign last year. He wanted these young people to learn that cancer is not some vague term in a textbook, but a disease that affects real people.

"I wanted to teach them empathy and compassion — to have a heart," he said, as the students and the recipients talked and ate cupcakes and bagels. "It seems kids these days are trending away from that — how to relate, to connect heart-to-heart.

Last year's class sent out 100 letters, but this year Schwartz pulled out all the stops, searching online for people willing to share their information. Students were told a little about each person — a hobby or special interest — and the class spent the beginning of each class reaching out to people in 45 states and 20 countries.

As they wrote the letters, Schwartz offered the students "gentle" lessons about the disease of cancer. They learned words like "remission" and "chemo," he said. He made sure to tell them that learning about cancer didn't mean that they or their loved ones would get it.

When Jack Harrington, 10, started writing to cancer survivor Desiree Stoff, he learned that she enjoyed travel and going to concerts. He praised her courage in the letter.

"Please know that you are one of our heros and serve as a role model for everybody who has been affected by this disease," he wrote. Then he added, "What is your favorite song?''

When the two met Wednesday, Stoff, 40, told the boy how happy the letter made her. 

"I keep it in my pocketbook," she told him. "And I take it out and read it."

Schwartz said it took time for some students to open up to the assignment. In the beginning, some students wrote their letters "like robots. I asked them, 'How would you feel if you got this?' "

Students wrote to people actively battling cancer and to cancer survivors. They wrote to people who lost loved ones to the disease. Some people wrote back, and certain responses stunned him, Schwartz said. There was the person who received the letter the day they learned their cancer had spread. Another opened the letter the day they went into remission, he said.

Harry Benitez, 10, sent letters to 42 people.

"I just wanted to put smiles on the faces of people," he said.

Emily Leary, Molly's mother, said it was wonderful to see her daughter reaching out to people who had been through so much.

Molly herself said the assignment changed her in a way.

"I learned that people are more positive than I thought they were," she said.

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