QUINCY -- St. Francis Solanus School has a Christmas tree in its hallway that students have filled with handmade stars bearing the names of loved ones with cancer.
Some of the stars note specific names; others offer inspiration. One simply says "My mom."
Maureen Makarewicz, 63, passes the tree countless times each day -- it's right outside her kindergarten classroom -- and each time, it elicits an emotional response. She's seen coworkers, her father-in-law, former students and so many others battle cancer. The diagnosis that called her to action was her son's though. Daniel Makarewicz was 24 in 2007 when he called his mother to tell her he had cancer.
She makes sure Daniel's is the first star on the tree each year when it goes up.
"As a mother, I wanted it to be me. I didn't want it to be him," Makarewicz said. "This was something I couldn't fix."
Sitting with her son through chemotherapy, she had a realization. It looked like Daniel would probably be all right -- and he has been in remission for several years now -- but many other patients would not be as fortunate.
"I just wanted to do something to help," she said, "to help the patients, to help the people working there, anything I could do."
It was Advent, a time of year when the school tries to instill in its students the values of community service and giving to others.
She coordinated efforts to get change buckets placed in each classroom for one week, and each bucket corresponded to a different raffle prize. Makarewicz admits that the prizes were pretty humble that first year but, largely thanks to donations by parents, they have grown to include some pretty desirable options -- the school gave away a drone and a big-screen TV at this year's Change Cancer assembly last week. The efforts raised $1,300 that first year, and that number has grown annually. They raised $2,400 this year -- not bad for a school of 300 people, Makarewicz said.
After hearing the students cheer each other on as winners were announced, Makarewicz left the school's gymnasium last week with a rush of excitement. This was also the first time she had participated by putting chances in, and she won a St. Louis Cardinals apron.
The money is distributed evenly between Blessing Cancer Center, Siteman Cancer Center in St. Louis -- where a St. Francis teacher who died from cancer two years ago received treatment -- and Illinois CancerCare in Peoria -- where Daniel received treatment. This year a portion of the money will also go to the scholarship for a scholarship in honor of Allison Holbrook, a former St. Francis student who recently died from cancer.
"We encourage them to put it put it to the best use," she said. "Hopefully it can do some good there."
Change Cancer has raised close to $12,000 since it began seven years ago.
"I'm not anybody special," Makarewicz said, "just somebody who took something that was not the high point of my life and tried to make something better out of it."
Looking out over the roaring sea of students at the assembly, Makarewicz was able to spot her grandchildren. St. Francis has seen several generations of her family members pass through its doors. She was a student there, as was her mother, her children and now grandchildren.
It was at St. Francis that her fourth grade teacher, Inez Neuser, altered the course of Makarewicz's life. After a school year with Neuser, Makarewicz wanted to become a teacher.
"She strongly encouraged us," she said, "and she geniunely seemed to be happy to be in the classroom with us."
Through Quincy Notre Dame and Quincy University, her dream of becoming a teacher held steady. In her senior year at Quincy University, she received two job offers on the same day -- one was from the school right across 18th Street.
She taught first grade her first year at St. Francis, and second grade her second year. Then she moved to kindergarten, where she has been for 40 years.
"It's a clean slate with all of them," she said of teaching kindergarten students. "I love that challenge."
Over four decades, there have been changes in her classroom. She began teaching with chalk on a chalkboard, and now it's iPads and smart boards. Most of her incoming students already know how to work the technology, but the broad skills she has always taught remain the same.
"Being able to teach somebody how to read is the best thing for me," she said.
"Sometimes I look back and wonder if I've lived a small life, but there's a tradition and history here that's so powerful. My three kids went here, and now my grandsons go here. For me, being here is as exciting as walking on the moon."