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Belle Vernon school reaches out to support Balchak family

| Tuesday, April 24, 2012, 9:20 p.m.

First it was Hoops for Haiti, followed by a Fast Break for the Food Bank. But this year it hit home.

What began two years ago as a school-wide effort at the Belle Vernon Area school to raise money to assist in providing a clean water supply for victims of the Haiti earthquake led last year to a benefit basketball game for the local food bank. This year it's "B-Balling for the Balchaks."

On Jan. 11, Bellmar Middle School eighth grader Julia Balchak died at age 13 from a rare form of cancer that affects only four percent of children stricken with the disease, Julia Balchak's father, Tim Balchak, said.

In Julia's honor, Bellmar students have organized a benefit basketball game and other activities scheduled for Wednesday, from 6:30-8:30 p.m.. to raise funds to assist the family during this difficult period.

"Students in our building wanted to do something to honor their friend and help her family," Bellmar English teacher Carol Frow said. "They felt so helpless while she was ill and wanted to do something both then and now to show her family how much they cared about her. Our students were creating a scrapbook they thought would put a smile on her face and organized this event prior to her passing away. Julia was an amazing young lady. She was academically minded, a great student in class, in plays and musicals, and she was the editor for our literary magazine at school. We miss her."

B-Balling for the Balchaks will pit members of the Bellmar boys and girls teams against the faculty, but much more is scheduled for the evening.

"We'll be selling hot dogs, popcorn, and baked goods," Frow said. "There will be a Chinese auction, 50-50 raffle, and half-court shots. Donors have contributed the hot dogs and baked goods and all proceeds will go to the family."

Bellmar faculty member and local disc jockey Todd Yancey is providing music for the evening. There will be a two-dollar admission fee and tickets will be available at the door. Bellmar principal John Grice has also been instrumental in making this event happen, Frow noted.

From her friends and peers

"This was the sole idea of Julia's closest friends at Bellmar," added reading, English, and social studies teacher Karen Guseman. "They came to us and asked what they could do and we came up with the idea of joining forces with the basketball game that has been a successful effort the last several years.

"Usually it's the boys basketball team versus the girls basketball team, but this year the faculty wanted to do more, so we decided to challenge the kids. This basketball event has raised money for good causes, first Haiti, and last year the local food bank and we are dedicating the benefit this year to the Balchak family."

What began as a lump on Julia's side, growing off her abdomen, was the rare form of cancer, diagnosed in September 2010, when doctors discovered a single giant cell tumor, Tim Balchak explained.

Julia's diagnosis was followed by six months of chemotherapy and radiation, with the treatments ending in March 2011. Following a CAT scan in July 2011, physicians informed the family that "nothing else was there," Tim Balchak added.

"But last August and September they found more tumors. Because of the type of cancer and its rarity, no treatment options were offered. They told us (Tim Balchak and his wife, Desiree) Julia may have been the only one in the country to have had that particular type of cancer at that time."

More than 800 people paid their respects at the Parzynski Funeral Home in Belle Vernon, including Julia's best friend, Miranda Filak.

"I knew Julia since before we started kindergarten," Filak said, her emotions evident as she spoke. "We were in the same classes. We did drama together at school. We went to CCD together and just hung out together. Paige Krempasky came up with the idea of honoring Julia and we planned and helped organize it together. It is a special night for me and it will help to keep her memory with me and us. I know I'm having a difficult time with this, so I can imagine what her family is going through. We'll be thinking of Julia and for me this is a way to help her family."

A special tribute

Krempasky also assisted in the design of the unique T-shirts that will be worn by the students and faculty. Students' shirts, white with purple lettering, bear the slogan, "My Hero, My Friend," an idea discovered on a cancer website, while the faculty's purple shirts, adorned with gold giraffes, read "Heroes come in all sizes. I should know. My student is one." Purple was Julia's favorite color.

"Julia loved giraffes, she just adored them," Tim Balchak said. "We went to the zoo when she was four years old and we bought her a stuffed giraffe. It's always been her favorite and was always with her, even when she was sleeping. She amassed hundreds of giraffes, but that first one was the most special."

Krempasky offered an interesting perspective of Balchak's death.

"Julia was intelligent and she was nice to everyone. When she passed away, it brought our whole school together. Everyone was thinking about her and no one was thinking about their own problems. It is sad that this happened to someone so young, someone our own age. Miranda liked a design she found on the Internet and my mom, Tara (Krempasky), who works at Beegraphix, and I worked on the design of the shirt."

On the day of the event, the entire faculty will wear their T-shirts, created by Beegraphix in Belle Vernon, in honor of Julia. A limited number of students' T-shirts was available to team members and committee members who organized the event. Teachers' shirts were available to all faculty members throughout the district.

Middle school basketball player Jesse Hartman met Julia Balchak when they started middle school together two years ago.

"Julia was always very friendly and very out-going. She loved everybody," he said. "This is our way to honor her and help her family. All the players have been busy putting up fliers about the game and getting donations outside of school."

Hartman has helped coordinate the basketball game portion of the evening but, after breaking his wrist in a recent game, he won't be battling the teachers. Instead, he'll be coaching his underdog teammates. Hartman noted that eight or nine teachers will be on the faculty team, who lost a game to the middle school players earlier this year. Hartman is confident his team will again prevail, especially since the students are spotted 50 points "because the teachers are so big."

"This night means so much to us," Tim Balchak said, referring to his wife and children. Deidra, is a senior at Belle Vernon Area High School, and Tim Jr., a sixth-grader at Bellmar. "We have had so much support from the community --• friends, family, and churches. We are so thankful that so many people have taken the time to think of us at a time such as this. People have been helping us in so many ways. I could spend the rest of my life thanking everybody and still not have enough time to thank everyone."

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