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‘Brave little girl’: Stewart Elementary students help Ava in her fight against leukemia

BRADENTON — Five-year-old Ava Ebling may not know a lot about Whitney Ackles, Kelli Gault and Reilly Jones.

Or Cara Peters and Caitlin Wilson.

Yet the Stewart Elementary School fifth-graders know a lot about her.

“She’s really brave,” Reilly said.

Brave in a way that has made a lasting impression on girls twice Ava’s age, members of K-Kids, a service club sponsored by Bradenton Kiwanis.

Made an impression on adults like Phyllis Morales, too.

“She’s our hero,” said the guidance counselor and K-Kids advisor.

Ava, a hopeful Stewart kindergartner come August, is battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Diagnosed last November, the older of Melissa and Jamie Ebling’s two children had been a weekly chemo patient at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg

Ava has progressed to where she will visit every 12 weeks.

“We’ve had our ups and downs, but she’s a brave little girl, the strength of how we can get through this,” her mother said.

Forty-five years ago, a child Ava’s age had a 3 percent survival rate from ALL.

Today it surpasses 87 percent.

“She is fully aware of what’s going on,” Ava’s mother said. “She asks, ‘Why me? Why am I sick? Why do I have to go through all of this and no one else does?’ There are no answers. We just know we’re doing everything we can do to make her better — and she will get better.”

Ava has become a changed girl in other ways, too.

Illness or no, she exuded a child’s delight climbing Stewart’s playground set.

“She used to be quiet, laid back, easy going, passive,” Melissa Ebling said. “Now, having this experience and being exposed to a lot of the community, friends and family and this treatment has made her blossom, open up, become more dynamic.

“Most of these girls can’t wait to get out of school. She can’t wait to go to school.”

Those girls and the rest of Stewart’s K-Kids have joined the community in Ava’s fight.

They adopted her and raised $200 from a Valentines candy sale to gave to the child’s family.

“We knew what she was going through and wanted to do something,” said Kelli, 11.

Though the amount is small, compared to the $35,000 reportedly raised at a sold-out benefit at Bradenton Auditorium last Saturday, the gesture established a bond.

“I was really touched they wanted to do this for her,” Ebling said. “She does see the love and support, the compassion, how everybody wants to help her.”

Ava has helped the K-Kids on several levels, too.

They’ve learned to think beyond themselves.

“It’s made me a more caring person,” said Caitlin, 11.

They know more about this disease, the most common form of cancer diagnosed among children.

“I thought you could only get leukemia when you were older,” said Cara, 11.

They empathize with what Ava faces as a new student.

“Going into kindergarten is scary because you don’t know anybody, said Reilly, 11. “She has a disease that’s scary and might make her miss a lot of school. Other kids might make fun of her. I hope they don’t.”

Whitney was more emphatic.

“If you don’t know what someone is going through, you don’t treat them weird, stay away from them and give them weird looks,” said the 10-year-old. “Treat them like a normal person.”

That Ava has brought such awareness to these girls impressed Morales.

“Fifth-grade girls are going through a lot of changes to begin with at that age, but I think they’ve made an excellent connection,” the guidance counselor said. “They’ve realized this child is hurting. That it’s hard to be a kindergartner coming to school to begin with, never mind coming to school with an illness.

“But you know what? They look up to her even though she’s much younger and smaller. Ava is courageous.”

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055.

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