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As speakers pumped out dance music and thumping bass Saturday morning, runners and walkers of all ages created a river of pink outside Mission Regional Medical Center. Teams made shirts and carried signs with the names of women they honored during the Fourth Annual Mission Pink Run/Walk for Breast Cancer Awareness.
By the end of the event, some 55 faculty and staff members from Castro Elementary School had crossed the finish line.
“I feel like this is our anthem for all the people who made it. We do it in memory of all the people that we lost,” third-grade Castro teacher Fred Estimbo said, standing by the archway made of pink balloons. “I just feel like I ran the New York Marathon.”
Nearly every department from the school was represented, Principal Francis Sanchez said proudly.
“They give so much during the week, and here they are on a Saturday supporting the Castro family,” she said. “We have a very close relationship, but I feel like it brought us together even more.”
That family came together for the breast cancer run after being hit by tragedy twice last year. They paid tribute to Gracie Sanchez, a teacher with a 30-year career at the school who lost her battle with the disease in April. At the same time, they celebrated the recovery of teacher Barbara Komo, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer last year.
It was last summer that Komo entered Francis Sanchez's office to share her diagnosis.
“I had no symptoms at all. I thought I was perfectly healthy,” Komo said during an Oct. 4 interview.
Results from a routine mammogram had raised cause for concern, and further testing confirmed that she was in the early stages of breast cancer.
Sanchez had only recently been assigned to Castro Elementary, but having been found clear after her own bout with cancer two years ago, she could relate to what Komo was feeling at the time.
“Although I didn’t know her from years back...I felt her pain, just looking at her from a woman to a woman,” Sanchez said. “And I saw in her what I saw in me a few years back. I saw her fear, I saw her concern, and I could really connect with that.”
Sanchez assured Komo that any time she would need away from work would not be a problem. As Komo prepared to begin treatment, she also informed some of her fellow teachers.
“I told a few people, especially the ones I knew would pray for me,” she said. “They would see me in the hallway and ask how I was doing, [say] that they were thinking about me and they were praying for me and they had their families praying for me. It was really encouraging just to know that. It made me feel really good just to know that they cared.”
During her cancer treatment, other instructors helped out if Komo needed to leave her first-grade classroom early or needed someone to pick up her daughter from school.
“There was so much going on at the same time, but in a way it sort of helped being here because it kept me busy and it kept my mind on things other than the cancer, so it was therapeutic in a way,” she said.
Sanchez said Komo didn't let doctor appointments stop her from returning to Castro Elementary for report card nights or parental involvement events.
“She would still make it back, and I think it was her way of saying, ‘I’m not going to let this beat me. I’m going to continue doing what I do,’” Sanchez said. “They’re fighters. It never affected her work in such a way to where it would be very noticeable or we would have to come in and take over. The teachers are a special breed.”
Komo credits her recovery to early detection.
“It’s very important to have those screenings, and I can’t emphasize that enough to people because I never would have known,” she said.
Gracie Sanchez's friends and co-workers remember her as a creative teacher who was always willing to lend a hand to others.
During a Christmas ornament contest one year, it was Gracie who suggested Castro Elementary use the Mission firehouse as its theme. Students created ornaments to remember past fire fighters and used toothpaste boxes to make fire trucks. They took home first place that year.
“She was an awesome teacher, and her kids loved her,” Carmen Fernandez, a 5th-grade Castro teacher, said. “She always had prizes for the kids, and she did projects with them, tambien.”
In addition to her students, Gracie touched the lives of her fellow teachers. She was a quiet woman with the ability to make others laugh, a love of costumes and a penchant for good-natured pranks among comrades after the children went home.
Such a time was around one Halloween when she anonymously sent an assistant coach a Halloween mask.
“We had found out that he had gotten it one particular day, but we didn’t see him. We walked back into my room, and he was waiting there, and he scared us,” Fernandez said, smiling at the memory. “If you were to have met her, you would think she was a very serious person, but she had her own little ways.”
Gracie didn't shy away from a chance to dress up. She once came to school as Amelia Bedelia, a children's book character, and went all-out for spirit week and Halloween.
“Remember when she got all dressed up, what was it, Crazy Day? And she had brought her dad’s walker, and she had on a rain cap and these huge glasses. She won that time,” Fernandez said, laughing at the memory with Komo, Sanchez and teacher Rosario Garcia.
“She was very persuasive. I would never dress up for Halloween in all my career,” said Garcia, who began at Castro Elementary about six years ago. “Well I dressed up as a witch. All the second grade teachers were witches. She was a lot of fun to be with.”
Gracie’s first bout with cancer was in 2006, and she had been free of the illness for three years when it resurfaced in January 2010. She had retired, but was a substitute teacher and teacher trainer at the time, and she was out for most of the school year before losing her battle with the disease in April. Colleagues from Castro and later the entire school district donated leave days while she was home sick.
Like Komo, Gracie was a single parent, and her fellow teachers helped by taking her to doctor appointments or making meals for her. To keep her spirits up, Gracie had a beeper that friends and family used to signal her whenever they prayed for her.
Mourning the loss of one teacher and celebrating the recovery of another, the Castro Elementary teachers and staff decided they wanted to help raise money for breast cancer research and pay tribute to Gracie together.
“It’s meaningful to us, supporting this cause,” Sanchez said. “We want to contribute, and at the same time, we want to show our teachers, ‘We’re here, we’re a family, we’re a together.' It’s something we would like to eventually share with (Gracie's) family, as well.”
Garcia stressed the importance of getting regular mammograms despite the discomfort of the exam.
“It’s real important to get your annual physical check ups,” she said. “I like to get them in the summer. Get them done, even though they hurt and they're horrible.”
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The Progress Times is the hometown newspaper for the local communities of Mission, Sharyland, Alton, Palmview, La Joya and surrounding areas in Western Hidalgo County. We have a staff of veteran reporters who work diligently every week to bring our readers the latest news as it affects their hometown area and people.