While most parents or caregivers of a child celebrated the beginning of the school year last week and put their loved one on a school bus or packed them a lunch, Jennifer Fitzgerald’s thoughts were elsewhere. 

Fitzgerald is the legal guardian for her niece, Emmalee Fitzgerald, who was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Instead of getting Emmalee ready for school and telling her about all of the exciting things she will learn, Jennifer Fitzgrald faces a much different world. She is left to wonder if Emmalee’s chemotherapy treatments are going to wreak havoc on her white blood cell count or if a fever will mean a middle of the night rush to the Arkansas Children’s Hospital. 

Little things like a new school year get lost in the schedule of treatments, hospitals stays and tests when dealing with a seriously ill child. 

Fitzgerald said her biggest concerns these days, outside of caring for Emmalee, is sharing the experience with Emmalee in a positive way.

"This experience has made me want to do more and help out," she said. "Until you go through multiple hospital stays and all of the worries that come with it, you might not know how little things can mean so much. Emmalee and I are trying to focus on the positive side of her illness and use this time to help other families going through the same things we are."

In their efforts to help, Emmalee and Jennifer are asking the community to collect pull tabs from any aluminum cans and donate them to the Arkansas Children’s Hospital, where they will be used to collect donations for Ronald McDonald House Charities, which is an organization that offers parents and family members of a sick child, a place to stay while the child receives treatment. 

Another mission the duo is taking part in is reminding people the importance of giving blood.

"Kids with cancer and blood disorders receive blood transfusions and platelets constantly", Fitzgerald said. "Having enough on hand to help someone who desperately needs it is important and the only way to have it is if people donate it. Anyone can contact the Red Cross and donate in Emmalee’s name or in the name of anyone they know that is sick and needing blood. It doesn’t matter what blood type you are, the patient will still receive credit for the donation and it will help someone."

Emmalee is slated to undergo aggressive chemo treatments through the end of the year and will be on a two-year maintenance plan after that. Fitzgerald hopes Emmalee will be able to join her class at Vilonia Primary School after Christmas and is working with a teacher while Emmalee receives treatments to make sure she is on par with the other students. Until then, Fitzgerald remains at Emmalee’s side and has been off work from her job at Lowe’s for months. The community has held several fund raisers to help Fitzgerald with expenses as Emmalee’s treatments continue and donations are still being accepted at any Faulkner County branch of Metropolitan Bank. 

Fitzgerald said she is thankful for the support and concern of the community as she continues to care for Emmalee.

"I don’t know what I would have done without the support and concern of the community and so many amazing people," she said, "Having so many people step forward to help us when they haven’t even met us is a blessing and we are both thankful for each one."

To donate blood or organize a blood drive, visit www.redcross.org. To donate to Ronald McDonald House Charities, visit www.rmhc.org.

(Candie Beck is a staff writer and can be reached at 505-1238 or at candie.beck@thecabin.net)