A child's birthday party is not an unusual event. Unless you have over 200 guests, as Marnie Howiler did.
This bash was not just about Marnie turning 6. It was about celebrating the end of her eight months of chemotherapy, and a way for her and her parents, Robbie and Ken, to thank the people of the Lake Norman and surrounding community who have supported them.
Diagnosed last August with a Wilm's tumor, Marnie started chemotherapy when she should have been enjoying her first days of kindergarten at Davidson Elementary School. From the first word of her condition, the community stepped in to help.
Robbie's sister called Davidson United Methodist Church, where the Howilers had recently joined, to give them the news. Within an hour, senior pastor Jody Seymour and his wife Betsy were at the hospital. The hospital released them later that day, with instructions to return on Monday for a biopsy. That night, four friends showed up with dinners - including Marnie's teacher, Amy Teckenbrock.
After two rounds of chemo and a few setbacks, including an allergic reaction to antibiotics that landed her in the hospital for two weekends in a row, Marnie was set to have surgery Oct. 26, to remove her right kidney, where the tumor was located, and a second tumor. At 9:30 am, when Marnie was being wheeled into the operating room, 25 friends of the Howilers showed up at the Davidson College Presbyterian Church chapel to pray for her. All were armed with pink bracelets inscribed with the word "Marnie," and within days, around 1,500 of the wristbands were distributed.
"I got e-mails from friends sharing Marnie bracelet stories," said Robbie Howiler. "Our friends would be out and notice people they didn't even know wearing Marnie bracelets. Each person would then share their story of how they knew Marnie. Some of the people didn't know us or Marnie, but wanted to wear the bracelet to show support and share her story."
Marnie's surgery went well, and was followed with rounds of radiation and chemotherapy. Although her time at school was limited, she was never far from the minds of her classmates. Friend Annabel Reddick and her mother, Melissa, brought a Playmobil hospital set over for Marnie, hoping it would help her to deal with her experience in the hospital. "During Christmas, I had our nativity scene out," said Howiler. "Marnie has always loved baby Jesus and is always taking him out of the nativity scene for other activities. At one point, baby Jesus was on the stretcher and riding in the ambulance. The Playmobil was a wonderful way for Marnie to work through all that was going on during her treatments."
Julia White, mother of a friend of Marnie's from the Davidson College Presbyterian Church preschool, where she had attended, set up the website lotsofhelping hands.com. Immediately nearly every one of Marnie's classmates, past and present, had volunteered to deliver meals. When the Howilers signed up to do the Cure Search walk, family and friends raised nearly $9,000 in Marnie's name - within a month.
Since the announcement of Marnie's remission was just before her birthday, the Howilers were looking for a way to say thank you to the community that has supported them. They arranged a birthday party at the Lake Norman YMCA on June 5. The Y donated the space, a bounce house and counselors to help out. Cookies for Kids' cancer set up a cookie decorating booth. And the Children's Community School pitched in with art supplies and volunteers to do face painting. The crowd included former teachers, friends and relatives, as well as people who had never met the Howilers, but have simply been inspired by Marnie's story.
"We will be forever grateful to this community for the love, support and kindness shown to us during Marnie's eight months of treatment," said Howiler.