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A cut for a cause

Student fundraises for teacher
Solange Desnoyers, 7, watches as her hair is cut by Cheryl Woycenko at Techniques in Bonnyville on Saturday afternoon.

“She was put in my class for a reason.”

At the start of the school year, École des Beaux-Lacs Grade 2 teacher Rachelle Balla was diagnosed with stage three A colon cancer.

“I didn’t go off (of work) until my surgery in December, with the hopes of going back. I had promised the kids I’d be back for Valentine’s Day and things didn’t quite work out,” Balla said. “When I had surgery, it was to remove the cancer that was in there. All hopes were based on the surgery removing all of that… They took extra out just to be safe and to check, and in that, they found more.”

Four or five weeks later, she found out she would be going to the Cross Cancer Institute for CT scans and aggressive chemotherapy.

When her student Solange Desnoyers heard the news, she knew she had to do something.

The seven-year-old started a GoFundMe page for her teacher, and cut off 12-inches of her hair to donate to a child in need.

“Solange is a rarity. She’s a seven-year-old, but she has such an old soul, and she has more faith than anyone I’ve ever met, adult or child alike,” described Balla, who believes Solange was put in her class by fate.

“In my situation, I’m always questioning. I’m angry, wondering why this is happening to me…. the usual questions when someone gets sick. To have her come in and say, ‘you know what madam, just put it in God’s hands. We’re all praying for you.’ She’s my biggest supporter, and I’m really grateful.”

The idea to fundraise for her teacher “just popped” into Solange’s head.

When asked why she wanted to do this for Balla, Solange stated “she loves us.”

“She has the hugest heart. She doesn’t have kids of her own, so the ones in her classroom really are like her own children,” expressed Jacelyn Desnoyers, Solange’s mother and music teacher at École des Beaux-Lacs.

“She is like a big-hearted mother and she mothers her students.”

Balla has taught at the same school for 17 years, describing it as “tight-knit and family-oriented.”

“I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. My aunt was my inspiration to become a teacher. At a very young age I watched her career blossom and I think that’s where I got my love for wanting to help kids,” detailed Balla. “We don’t have kids, so we just poured everything we have in.”

Although they may not have children of their own, Balla leaves a lasting impression on her students, noted her husband Trevor Balla.

“She’s that teacher. The kids adore her and look up to her. Their whole lives they keep that respect for her.”

For Balla, teaching is all about her students.

“The hugs, their innocence, their desire to learn – they’re just mushrooms and sponges. They want to learn everything,” she exclaimed.

Solange’s original goal of $700 has been well surpassed.

As of Monday morning, they had raised just shy of $4,600 through GoFundMe.

“I think it was a lesson in really dreaming big, because when she said her goal was $700, we hoped that maybe we would meet it in a month or so, but this just shows the generosity and love of people around us,” stated Desnoyers.

She is also using this as a teaching tool, to remind students that you don’t have to be special in order to make a difference in someone’s life.

“I was telling my students that it’s not that Solange is special or out of the ordinary, anyone can have their eyes open for the people in need around us. Everyone has something they can offer, whether it’s just a word of encouragement or raising money and cutting your hair.”

Solange bid farewell to her locks on Saturday, but donations are still being accepted.

The experience has helped Balla better understand how a diagnosis like hers can have a life-altering impact.

“I don’t think you realize how trying it is until you’re in that situation, because I have a couple of friends going through it, but I never realized how gruelling it was for them and how alone you feel at moments, despite the support,” she said.

Staff have been making her meals, and Balla expressed how “it’s just so nice not to have to worry about that stuff, because it’s not easy.”

With seven more chemo treatments to go, Balla is enthusiastic about the future.

“The doctors here are amazing, my specialists in the city are amazing. I think everything is just happening how it’s supposed to, and I’ll be done the treatments in seven more months and then I will be fine and ready to go,” she said.

Balla continued, “We live in a great community with a bunch of great people. With all of the negativity in the world, I think it’s great to highlight Solange. There’s a lot of bad stuff happening, but you see a little seven-year-old who’s going to change the world, I have no doubt.”