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For Jen, With Love from Livingston

Teachers Cycle for Survival, putting a meaningful spin on a day set aside for giving from the heart.

Teachers in Livingston schools know that kindness counts more this Valentine’s Day than flowers and chocolates. It’s a lesson on empathy they’ve been sharing with their students, literally, putting themselves in the shoes of others, or in this case, the sneakers of Jennifer Goodman Linn, the LHS graduate who has raised millions of dollars in sports clubs to help doctors find cures for rare cancers.

Linn is battling a rare cancer that has inspired thousands to join her quest to put a positive spin on treatments. She's turned adversity into strength and opportunity to form the Cycle for Survival fundraiser, an event that raised more than $4.5 million this weekend alone at spinning events in major cities, and suburban Livingston, New Jersey, her hometown.

On Saturday, nearly 80 teachers, parents and friends participated for the first time in a spin at New York Sports Club, the space donated by manager Bill Wardell, one of dozens of Livingston businesspeople who supported the cause.

Livingston raised more than $31,000, three times the goal when Hillside Principal Bernadette Pilchman, whose sister has been fighting a rare cancer, began to dream of ways Hillside Elementary School could get involved in Cycle for Survival.

Hillside was Linn’s elementary school and the school where her mother, Sandy Goodman, taught second grade. At a pep rally on Friday afternoon, the children of Hillside cheered their teachers, sang songs about “HEART” composed by music teacher Paul Stefany, and talked about the word’s most important letter, “E” for empathy. They too had joined the project, giving their change – more than $200 – and the Student Council donating T-shirts for each and every student and teacher.

“It’s not just your academic studies like math and social studies, that’s important in life,” Sandy Goodman told the students. “It’s also about learning to care for your community and your friends. I am so proud of you.”

That outpouring of community support was evident on Saturday when teachers at Hillside, joined by their colleagues in schools throughout the town, cycled with parents and friends. Many had personal reasons to ride, their lives as well touched by cancer. Their red T-shirts, designed by Hillside parent Karen Scott, said simply, “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.” On their backs many pinned personal messages, riding in memory of parents and mentors and friends, and in support of those battling the disease.

The fitness teacher, Lisa Spielman, expecting her third child in July, motivated a group of riders in an exuberant spinning class, the energy pumped by a song list put together by Spielman’s college friend, Meredith Israel, who credits the music with helping her through her ordeal with Stage 4 breast cancer.

In the afternoon, the ride was an emotional roller-coaster as the teachers cycled in support of a 13-year-old Livingston resident who just a month ago was diagnosed with the same type of rare cancer as Linn.

The outpouring of support “is so bittersweet, so beautiful,” Sandy Goodman observed.

Her daughter Jen has survived sarcoma six times. That translates into seven distinct courses of chemotherapy (some lasting as long as 16 months), five surgeries, and countless days spent focusing on recovery.

She’s inspired thousands of people to help her in her efforts to support research at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. (You can see Jen's story here). Rare cancers are far more prevalent than the term implies – more than half of people with cancer have a form of the disease considered "rare." The list includes pancreatic, sarcoma, uterine, cervical, brain, metastatic melanoma, stomach cancer and all pediatric cancers.

Every penny of every dollar raised goes directly for treatments, said her father Len Goodman. And it’s been a lot of dollars. After this year’s events, the total is expected to top $10 million, money that has directly gone to begin treatment trials on patients – 13 new trials in the past year alone.

 “We all live our lives knowing we can do more,” said Roger Black, owner of Stonybrook Day Camp and one of the early businesspeople to support the teachers. “This is a local cause. If we don’t get behind this, what do we have?”

He wasn’t alone. Last month, a fundraiser at Calabria organized by Collins kindergarten teacher Greer Gelman, netted $7,000 for the teachers, a team who called themselves “H.E.A.R.T. Warmers.”

In all, more than two dozen businesses would lend a hand, including New York Sports Club, Stonybrook Day Camp, Jane’s Nails, Bubble and Shake Cupcakes, Americana Salon and Spa, Dunkin Donuts, Carriage House, Complements Two, Gensoy, Nana’s Deli, College Mania, High Country Sports, Staples, Livingston Camera, E-nails, Jay’s, Seymour’s, Pasquale the Spa, Johnson & Johnson, Bee Bee Designs, Saint Barnabas Medical Center, Edible Arrangements, Calabria, PIP Printing – and the waitress from Seymour’s who donated tip money straight out of her apron pocket.

The check presented to the Goodmans was scribbled with a newer, higher amount. They would bring that to their daughter at the major New York City cycling event on Sunday.  “This has exceeded all our expectations,” said Jeanne Silberman, whose friendship with Linn inspired her to take a leadership role in planning the Livingston event and soliciting community support.

Indeed there were more riders than could squeeze into a party room decorated with heart balloons and the cards students made for their teachers. Patch photographer Bob Krasner was working hard to fit everyone in. He asked a group of children to scoot back, and they did, quickly and quietly, grinning at the dozens of teachers and their parents in red.

 “That was good listening,” praised Hillside third-grade teacher, Dana Wallock, the H.E.A.R.T. Warmer's team captain.

Actually, Mrs. Wallock, that was good teaching.

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