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Latrobe girl's Army on march against cancer

| Tuesday, June 17, 2014, 9:01 p.m.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Chad Schmeling, a special education teacher and coach, has his head shaved by Nicole McCleary, a stylist from Fringe Hair Designs, during the Save It or Shave It fundraiser on Thursday, June 5, 2014 at Greater Latrobe Junior High School. The fundraising event benefits seventh-grader Madison Kikel, who was diagnosed with cancer and has been receiving treatments at Children’s Hospital. Three faculty members and both of the junior high principals left the fate of their hair in the hands of the students, who voted with donations to shave the hair of each of the volunteers. More than $1,200 has been raised.

Visiting doctors was nothing out of the ordinary for Latrobe native Madison Kikel and her family — she has had neurofibromatosis, a disease resulting in several benign tumors on her neck, back and optical nerve, as well as a right below-knee amputation, since she was 3.

But things changed April 27, when doctors discovered that the 14-year-old had a cancerous tumor on her adrenal gland that had spread to her lungs.

“When we first found out, it was devastating,” said her mother, Patty Hoopengardner.

“It was the worst news we've ever found out,” added her stepfather, Tom Hoopengardner.

In spite of the diagnosis, the Greater Latrobe community and school district has rallied around the family to raise money for Madison's Army, a charitable donation fund that will defray some of the girl's medical costs.

Students at Greater Latrobe Junior High School raised $1,196 in three days through a Shave It or Save It fundraiser held two weeks ago. Six staff members, including teachers and principals, signed up to get their heads shaved if students raised enough money. They could opt to save their hair by matching the donation money students raised, but each staff member involved chose to go with a shave.

Madison was unable to attend the event — she was receiving chemotherapy that day — but she said she was excited that her teachers shaved their heads.

“There is a serious side to this event, as this event was to raise money for Madison Kikel and her battle against cancer,” director of teaching and learning Mike Porembka reminded students. “Today you can all consider yourself a part of Madison's Army.”

Students gave money, created posters and solicited donations. The student council sponsored a dunk tank in which students could pay to dunk teachers, while teachers held a “jeans day” on which they could pay to wear jeans to school.

Meanwhile, Greater Latrobe School District elementary schools donated gift cards for gasoline to fund the family's travel to a hospital in Philadelphia.

“It's surprising that we've had so many people, not just at Madison's school but also at the elementary schools, help out,” Patty Hoopengardner said.

That didn't surprise him, Porembka said.

“What you see here is very indicative of the compassion Greater Latrobe has for kids,” he said. “There's more to school than academics, and what you're seeing here is students.”

Other locals have stepped in, too. Army and Navy recruitment offices gave Madison memorabilia, and the Marines paid her a visit — in full uniform — in Children's Hospital. The Marine Corps also donated tickets to the Westmoreland County Air Show to Madison and her family.

Madison, a Penguins and Steelers super fan, had another special visitor in the hospital: Penguins owner Mario Lemieux.

The teenager and her family visited Philadelphia on Friday for a consultation to expand on the chemotherapy she is receiving at Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh. She hopes to receive the treatment in July.

In the meantime, Madison's Army continues to raise money through a spaghetti dinner held by the Unity Township Football Team, for which Madison was a water girl for two years. The dinner will be held from 1 to 5 p.m. July 19 in the Marguerite Fire Hall.

Madison's Army is also holding a Tastefully Simple fundraiser until Friday.

While Madison's Army works to raise money for her family, she has focused her attention on a broader cause: the American Cancer Society. Madison cut the ribbon at the Latrobe Relay for Life on Saturday to kick off the event.

According to doctors, the teenager's outlook is good, Tom Hoopengardner said. Once she enters remission, the family plans to continue raising money through Madison's Army, so they can donate to the oncology unit at Children's Hospital.

Madison remains optimistic. “Madison's thing is that no matter what, God is always with us,” Patty Hoopengardner said.

“She cries every time I say it,” Madison said about her mother.

Alicia McElhaney is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-6220 or amcelhaney@tribweb.com.

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