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Valley School commemorates valiant student

| Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014, 9:02 p.m.
Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
A photo book made to commemorate a 5K fundraising event shows Maggie Elder's family photos.
Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
Books in the 'The Maggie Elder Caldecott Collection.' Each of the 300+ books was donated by an individual and the books will be nameplated and put on the shelves.
Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
Kindergartner Ella Van Norman, 5, reads a book from the 'The Maggie Elder Caldecott Collection' to Valley School of Ligonier director of development Mallory Reese. The collection of the Caldecott books from 1938-present are part of a newly installed mural and bookcases at the school's library.

If veracity, tenacity, vitality, bravery, spirit and kindness are the traits held by angels, then Maggie Elder certainly holds a prime seat on the governing board of the heavens, according to those who knew her best.

“Faith crushes fear” was Maggie's mantra, and she held strong to that, even when she found out that she had cancer in 2011, even when she struggled to walk, couldn't take part in school dances, felt compassion for loved ones affected by her struggles — even when she learned there was nothing more doctors could do.

Maggie passed away in February 2012, at age 11, at home among those she loved most, from Ewing's Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer that affects mostly children and adolescents.

Although her physical being has passed, her endearing and enduring spirit has been forever encapsulated in the Valley School of Ligonier's Maggie Elder Caldecott Collection.

Family members, friends, classmates, teachers and acquaintances officially welcomed the collection on Feb. 12 with a public opening — an atmosphere far from somber, as hugs, laughs and reminiscing took place.

“I think this is a wonderful idea in the name of someone who sounds like a very special little girl. I've heard of schools setting aside a reading corner or a bench in honor of somebody, but this is the first time I've heard of anything specific to the Caldecott Collection,” said Marion Rutsch, Caldecott Medal committee chairwoman of the Washington, D.C. area.

The Caldecott Medal is a national award granted to outstanding childrens' picture books — books that Maggie found comfort in during her sickness.

Since its inception in 1937, The Valley School of Ligonier managed to collect every book ever granted the award, amassing nearly 350, and with each new award granted, will continue to do so.

Maggie's mother, Cyndi McGinnis, said her daughter had a real love for reading.

“It was a way we could all spend quality time,” said McGinnis. “This is the perfect way to honor her.”

The task was no easy one. Mallory Reese, director of development at the school, resorted to serious detective work — some books were out of print, some could not be located and some had to be re-ordered due to the condition.

Included in the collection is the poetry compilation that Maggie's classmates put together in her honor. Her classmates were only in fifth grade at the time, but their words are ones of true transcendence.

Zoe Shaffer, now 12, wrote, “You said good night to earth, and good morning to heaven,” while Prosser Cathey, now 12, penned, “A horse/running wild and free/but she fell, laming her leg/when she reached the top of the golden steps/the angels greeted her with a banner.In a fitting tribute, Chloe Pohland, now 13, reflected “Her life/like a book/a beloved book/a book I never wanted to end.”

Maggie wrote her own book about her experiences. When Maggie became too ill to write herself, school librarian Karen Koza transcribed for her. Some of Maggie's own insights included ageless inspiration, such as “fears are like questions — after the questions are answered,” “I'm not scared anymore,” “cancer can't take away love” and “My mom — my family is my Make-A-Wish.”

She also goes on to describe her hospital meeting with Troy Palomalu, describing him as “gentle and spiritual — funny he is a big bulky football player.”

Among some of the students' favorite books in the Caldecott Collection includes the 1951 book “T-Bone.” At this, Maggie's stepfather, Jim McGinnis, who quit his job as an engineer to care for her, smiles, “It's funny — steaks were all she ever wanted to eat.”

Maggie echoed this, chronicling, “Whenever I craved Jim's twice-baked potatoes and steak, he made it. He helped me walk again — and when I fell, he picked me right up. Jim is the best stepdad ever.”

Perhaps serving as the perfect metaphor for Maggie's young but brilliant life Rutsch added, “There is a lot of sophistication to these books — themes of friendship and resilience. There is lots of careful design, pacing and moments of revelation. There is a lot packed into those pages.”

And illuminated forever, with fortitude, grace, friendship and love, are the magnificent pages of Maggie Elder.

Rebecca Ridinger is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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