GREENFIELD — A stuffed monkey named Bananas sits in Christina Kellermeier’s chair at J.B. Stephens Elementary School.
He served as a placeholder while the girl battling cancer was out sick, giving her classmates something to hold on to while she was away — first in second grade and again this year.
On monday, the 9-year-old succumbed to her illness, the end of a four-year battle loved ones say Christina fought valiantly.
Tuesday morning, Bananas was back in Christina’s chair, where teachers say he’ll stay for the next few weeks, serving as reminder of the spunky little girl gone too soon.
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Christina was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor in 2011 and underwent several rounds of chemotherapy and treatment while continuing to attend class at J.B. Stephens.
At the time of her diagnosis, doctors gave her a 10 percent chance of recovery.
For three years, Christina defied the odds. Her body responded to treatment and kept the tumor from growing. In summer 2014, however, things changed. Her symptoms returned, as the tumor had resumed growing. After treatments stopped shrinking the tumor, Christina’s family opted to discontinued chemotherapy over the summer, according to her mother, Lori Gossett.
And those closest to her began to prepare for the worst.
Watching Christina fight so hard and bounce back so many times made her death all that more difficult for her friends and teachers, said Christy Harpold, social worker at J.B. Stephens.
“We always hoped and prayed that she’d beat this like she did before,” Harpold said. “ … The initial diagnosis was not good, but we had four years with her. That’s the part that’s the hardest. We saw her come back so many times. We all still had the hope.”
The students and staff at J.B. Stephens often discussed Christina’s illness and treatments.
Third-graders knew “chemo Thursdays” meant their friend would be out for the day and maybe a few days to follow.
“We’ve always been very honest with them,” Harpold said. “When she started chemotherapy, we would talk about that, what would happen or the things that could happen.”
During her battle, community members rallied together, raising funds for Christina’s treatments and offering support. Fish fries, silent auctions and other gatherings have been held across Greenfield in her honor, bringing in thousands of dollars to help pay for her treatments.
In August, hundreds of Greenfield-Central students and staff came together to show their support at an event they called “Craft and Laugh with Christina,” which featured all of the girl’s favorite activities, including a puppet show and plenty of crafts.
The day was reminiscent of the days Christina spent at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis for chemotherapy treatments, Gossett said at the event.
The family was surrounded by the hospital’s nurses, who did their best to create positive memories for youngsters who were sick. On treatment days, they gave Christina crayons and paintbrushes to play with to pass the time, Gossett said.
“It was never ‘chemo day’ to her; it was her craft day,” Gossett said.
J.B. Stephens administrators sent out an email to parents Monday evening informing them of Christina’s death, so many students came to school Tuesday having overcome the initial shock of their classmate’s passing, Harpold said.
The student body spent the morning making banners and cards that will be given to Christina’s family. They’ve decided to dress in pink on Thursday, showing their support of their friend in her favorite color.
Principal Matt Davis and a team of Greenfield-Central counselors visited each of the school’s classrooms to let the students ask questions and make sure they know that feeling sad is OK, school social worker Allison Morgan said.
They spent a little extra time in Christi Leininger’s room, where Bananas sat facing the name tag bearing Christina’s name. A piece of pink string stretches across the desktop, a token from a story Harpold and Davis read to Leininger’s students that talks about staying connected even after a death occurs.
While her students were away at other activities, Leininger dressed Bananas in a colorful headband and pink sunglasses in hopes it would draw smiles. She did her best to keep to a schedule, as textbook learning took a back seat to life lessons.
The grief, she said, will come and go.
“They did much better than I expected,” she said. “They did much better than I did today.”
Staff writer Daniel Morgan contributed to this story.