NORTH STONINGTON — Hands got dirty, legs and arms were splattered with paint and everyone got wet from the rain, but it was all worth it.
That was the assessment from the Wheeler High School senior class after 43 of them spent Friday on a special project to improve the home of Melanie Hartley, a local mother of two who is battling an aggressive form of cancer.
For the seniors, Give Back Day was the start of Senior Week activities leading up to graduation. But more importantly, it allowed them to help Hartley, who is 33 and the mother of two boys. She was diagnosed in January with an aggressive and rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The large tumor growing around her heart and lungs forced her to close her home daycare and undergo months of immunotherapy.
Wheeler class advisers Rebecca Schilke and Liz Cantelli have been with the class of 2018 since the students were freshmen. Typically, Give Back Day involves seniors helping out in the classrooms of their teachers, Schilke said.
This year they wanted to do more. Schilke and others had heard about Hartley’s diagnosis and the students wanted to help her in some way.
So Friday, armed with paint brushes and buckets, the class showed up early and proceeded to paint a large fence around the Hartleys’ yard.
“When we showed up she was in her yard, super-excited to see us,” Schilke said.
Student Marisa Mulhern, 17, helped with the painting.
“We were working pretty steady,” she said. “I got paint all over my leg, and arms.”
Hartley was in tears after seeing the work of the students.
“This is so amazing,” Hartley, who moved several years ago from Westerly, said. “It’s humbling. This community has done so much for my family. I can’t wait until I’m better and can do something for other people.”
The fence was just part of the work. Hartley had said she’d always wanted a backyard patio on which to sit with her husband, Justin, and watch her children, Parker and Jackson, play, but was unsure with her present health challenges whether that would happen.
Enter the students, who worked together to make it happen, and in just a few hours it was done.
“I’m just blown away,” Hartley said. “I’m really blessed to be part of this community.”
The kids and Schilke were the first to say that they couldn’t have done it without lots of local help.
UBS donated pavers for the patio, and Home Depot and U.S. Extruders, all in Westerly, donated paint. Ace Hardware gave an outdoor bench, and mason David Higginbotham contributed his time and labor to the preparation and oversight of the patio work.
Lowe’s in Lisbon sent a patio table and chairs, while Bradview Garden Center in Westerly donated a hibiscus bush.
As a finishing touch, Tractor Supply gave the students a watering can to sign and leave on the patio for the Hartley family.
The parents and teachers of the departing seniors gave not only money for painting supplies, but also food and drinks.