Teacher at Camelot Education’s South Suburban Center for Exceptional Learners turns her Cancer Diagnosis into Teachable Moment
After 12 years teaching in Juliet Public Schools in Illinois, Michelle Odo joined the faculty at Camelot Education’s South Suburban Center for Exceptional Learners (SSCEL) last August excited for her new challenge. She approached the job with the same zeal she always had in her 25-year career. But by October she started feeling tired in a way she never had before. She finally gave in and visited her doctor on October 30. Two days later she learned she had stage-3 colon cancer. The following day she was in surgery to remove the tumor and look for further cancer, which doctors found in her lymph nodes.
“I just thought I was tired,” Odo says. “I was at a new school, learning new policies and procedures. I was giving it my all and I was tired.”
But she was more than tired; she was very sick. Odo’s doctor was amazed that she was still teaching in this condition. Three weeks after the surgery she returned to school, but the diagnosis also meant she would have to undergo six months of chemotherapy. And that’s when the light bulb went on for this dedicated educator. She was going to make her life-threatening illness a teachable moment for her students.
“Once I wrapped my head around the diagnosis I decided I needed to do something not for me, but to give back,” she said. “My whole life has revolved around kids. From working in day care while I was still in college and then working in elementary education and now teaching high school it’s been that way the whole time.”
Odo was familiar with St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a charity committed to supporting the most promising research to find cures for childhood cancers. Money is raised by holding events at schools, including volunteers getting their heads shaved to demonstrate their support for the cause.
“I researched and thought this would be a great chance for our kids,” Odo said. “I brainstormed with some of our staff and said I know our students can’t bring money to school but they can donate in another way. So we thought, let’s get ‘caught being good.’ That became the theme for the campaign.”
February 7th was selected as the date for the St. Baldrick’s event because that date worked best with Odo’s chemo schedule. The staff put up “Let’s get caught being good” posters in the hallways. Students caught being good earned tickets worth 50 cents each toward the charity. Six staff members volunteered to shave their heads: Operations Manager Aaron Juarez, special education teachers Tim Koerner and Erik Kasper, paraprofessional Katie Locke, Michelle Odo of course and Principal Allison Watford who had so much hair to donate she sent her locks to Locks of Love, which makes wigs for children with cancer who have lost their hair through treatment.
“I was able to donate about 11 inches of hair,” Watford said. “To be able to experience that and to be able to have my hair made into a wig for kids that have no hair is something that is priceless and will never be able to be taken away. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
Because Watford’s hair had been so long her dramatic donation fueled even more enthusiasm for the event. The school brought in a cheerleading squad. The students had streamers they made with Popsicle sticks. The school had set a goal of raising $500 for St. Baldrick’s and ended up raising more than triple that amount.
“I really had no idea that this could happen,” Odo said. “By our kids being so good and so positive it’s helped me remain positive even through very rough days and weeks of pain. Being able to be a positive role model for them, too, was very important for me. I’ve been very up front with them so it’s just building those relationships with kids and trying to be positive when all they know is people die with cancer. I can’t imagine what my life would have been like had I not been at Camelot during this journey. They’re my family and we’ve all become a stronger family.”
Watford said this situation has affected the SSCEL campus in a meaningful way.
“This became a great learning experience for our students,” she said. “Our students were able to truly bond in their classrooms. By earning things from doing something good they impacted the culture of our campus. Students want to be caught being good. They want to be a part of this story. For our staff, this really has touched home, especially for all of us who had our heads shaved. I had not had my hair cut in a very, very long time. It’s really something getting used to our new look! But it truly did touch everybody and we’re here to support Michelle and hopefully we are here as a positive example of why she needs to persevere and come in and be a part of our life.”
Odo, who teaches the high school social emotional disorders class, is halfway through her six months of chemo treatments. She says the side effects are horrendous. As much as she wants to be at school she simply can’t work every day under those conditions, but she continues to think about her students.
“Our students come to our school because they have been traumatized in some way. It would hurt them more to see me in pain than it would help them for me to be there just working through it,” she said.
Odo’s doctors won’t know until after the treatment is complete how successful it was. She says her prognosis is “pretty good. I’m in good hands.”
Watford says Odo making it into work as often as she does is amazing enough.
“Her attendance is impeccable under the circumstances. Usually, it’s the Friday of treatment and the Monday after every two weeks that she has to be out. We are proud to support Ms. Michelle through this journey and have loved being able to give back to those truly in need.”