Valentine's Day was one of those made-to-order, blue skies kind of days — just right for exchanging cards and candy and maybe getting outside when the classroom parties were over for a rousing game of kickball.
Marcelo Carrioni, 9, was eager to take his place at the pitcher's mound on the playing field at Oakstead Elementary School.
This was no ordinary game.
This game was the culmination — the final celebration — of a pretty amazing schoolwide fundraising effort to benefit childhood cancer research and to honor the memory of his friend, Kaitlyn Jenkins.
"I'm excited that I'm able to help," said Marcelo, who became friends with Kaitlyn on their first day of kindergarten. "We couldn't help Kaitlyn. We're doing something for other kids that we couldn't do for her."
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Kaitlyn Brooke Jenkins was just 8 when she died on Oct. 31, just more than 10 months after being diagnosed with a rare and inoperable form of brain cancer. She endured a brave but quiet struggle, in large part kept out of the public eye when her family realized how little time was left.
"It's hard to talk about her sometimes," said her mom, Stacey Jenkins. "Sometimes you're anxious to talk about her and sometimes it's hard.
"Kaitlyn was a fireball of energy."
She loved sports. Played soccer. She was one of two girls on her flag football team; a tiny slip of a girl who reveled in the catcher's position on her softball team. Like a lot of girls her age, she was a big fan of iCarly and Taylor Swift. When it came to school, she was among the best of the best.
"She was sweet and caring — always friendly, always wanting to help," said her second-grade teacher Erica Austin. One time she came to school with a new package of whiteboard markers because she heard one of the teachers mention she needed some new ones.
Kaitlyn liked to play Webkinz and Littlest Pet Shop and she loved animals, said one of her best friends, Gylemees Oliva, 9. "She really liked horses. She had them all over her room. And she had all these crazy, fun stories."
At home, she was the one who rallied the family to get out and about, said her "Nana," Carolyn Krug, who always called her "my sweet girl."
"She was never one to just sit back and let things go on around her," Krug said. "We're kind of lost without her."
The last time Kaitlyn came to school was a year ago — on Valentine's Day.
She hadn't been to Oakstead since the classroom Christmas party in December 2010, but she wanted to be there, her mom said. "Every kid loves a holiday — but Kaitlyn really loved Valentine's Day — and Christmas, too, of course.
"It was her last day of radiation (therapy) and she was very exhausted but she wanted to see her friends," Austin said. "It was just very special. We had our party and did face painting, things like that. She acted like nothing was different, like she didn't have a care in the world."
The whole school gave her Valentine cards. The superintendent, too.
"She read every one of them," Kaitlyn's mother recalled last week, as she watched the kids at Oakstead run the bases after their Valentine's party. "No one would have been able to catch her, that's for sure."
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That's how much the kids, faculty and family members raised in six days through "Kick It," a fundraising program that was founded by a 10-year-old cancer patient who wanted to use the favored game of kickball to find a cure.
It was a classroom versus classroom competition, with Oakstead students bringing in coins and bills, all to vie for a chance to play a game. But mostly it was about working together and pooling your resources to help other kids, said second-grade teacher Kristin Smith, who organized the event with fellow instructors Erica Austin and April Finch.
Over the summer, the three had participated in a fundraising walk as part of "Kaitlyn's Krewe." They welcomed the opportunity to take on another effort with their students.
"We're always talking about helping others," Smith said, adding that the school participates in four community outreach programs.
Part of last year's efforts raised $15,000 for the Jenkins family. That helped enable Stacey Jenkins, a lieutenant with the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, and Norman Jenkins, who owns Integrity Automotive Repair in Dade City, to take time off from work to be with their daughter.
"They really supported us," Stacey said. "When Kaitlyn was well, we were able to do things with her, and when she was ill, we were able to be there to care for her. When people reach out to you like that — it really sticks with you."
Helping fund childhood cancer research became a pet project for the Jenkins family, who, after Kaitlyn's death, wanted to turn their attention to helping other children.
"It's absolutely amazing," Stacey said after hearing the fundraising grand total while standing on the sidelines with her husband, their 13-year-old son, Justin, and other family members who had come to watch.
"I'm really glad that the school is remembering Kaitlyn in this way," Stacey said. "It honors Kaitlyn and we know that this (money) goes for research, so this one is dear to us."