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Pahrump middle school turns volleyball match into fundraiser for families hit by cancer

Damon Chavez sat in the front row of the bleachers, watching, sort of, as his sister, Alondra, played volleyball for the Rosemary Clarke Middle School team. Mostly he played video games, as going to the game wasn’t really the 14-year-old’s idea.

“I was forced,” Damon said, letting out a little smile. “It’s like, ‘We’re going to your sister’s volleyball game, right?’ And I’m like, ‘Do we have to?’ ” But there he was, sitting next to big brother Jose and in front of mom Blanca as the Sharks took on Tonopah Middle School.

But this was no ordinary volleyball match. Spearheaded by coach Christine Ferrell, Rosemary Clarke turned the match into a fundraiser for the families of two students stricken with cancer. Damon, now a high school freshman, is one of those students. The other, Elijah Villegas, lost his battle with the disease a few weeks ago.

“My mother-in-law is dealing with brain cancer, and I know how hard the struggle is, so I thought why not do a fun game to see if we can raise money to help both families,” Ferrell said as she watched the school’s gym fill up with the largest volleyball crowd of the season.

“Chris came up with the idea,” principal Tim Wombaker said. “It was just natural because unfortunately we already had one boy who passed away from cancer, and Damon was a big part of our school and loved by a lot of kids, and with his sister being on the volleyball team it was a natural thing to do.

“Tonopah was great, they didn’t bat an eye and wanted to join right in. They didn’t hesitate, and it’s a great community they have up there, too.”

Tonopah Middle School coach Dakota Blackburn didn’t have to think twice about joining the drive to help the Pahrump families.

“We found out about this a couple of weeks ago,” Blackburn said. “They emailed me and asked me if we would be willing to participate, and I thought it would be an excellent cause considering we are kind of sister schools. We play each other, and when I brought it to the kids they were like absolutely, and they were super excited and they worked really hard to help fund raise for it.

“Our boosters pitched in, and our families were excited about it. We were more than happy to come down and play.”

The Sharks and the Jackhammers each wore T-shirts for the occasion, with “Bump, Set, Spike against Cancer” emblazoned on the front. Ferrell said the shirts came from Nick Moore of Team Sports in Pahrump, who has a daughter who plays volleyball at the middle school. Those shirts were available for sale as part of the fundraiser, while a large box for donations greeted everyone at the door. All proceeds from the event were slated to go to the families.

That community spirit came as no surprise to Blanca Pelayo, Damon’s mother.

“I’m grateful for the whole Pahrump town, with all of the support of the school district, Mr. (Dale) Norton, all of the teachers at the high school, middle school, elementary schools, the companies, all the people who have helped me with prayers for my son,” said Pelayo, who expressed her gratitude repeatedly before taking a seat for her daughter’s 6 p.m. game.

All three teams played Oct. 17, starting with the sixth-graders. As the younger players battled the visitors from Tonopah, Alondra Chavez Pelayo tried to put into words how tough it was to watch her brother struggle.

“My brother didn’t really do anything that would cause it,” she said of the cancer. “You can’t plan your life, your future. I’m very proud of my brother. He’s been very, very strong and positive. I’m grateful that he’s still with us.”

Older brother Jose, a 2019 graduate of Pahrump Valley High School and a standout soccer player for the Trojans, sees the same strength his sister sees in Damon.

“He’s strong,” Jose said. “He has more strength than I think I do. He’s taken this like a man. It’s hard, but he’s the one keeping us strong. He’s always telling us that things are going to be OK even though it’s sad.”

Damon sits close enough to hear his brother’s praise, but in this family, it is readily apparent everyone already knows how each feels about the others.

“He’s good,” Damon says of Jose. “He messes around. He gets home and he likes to mess around with us. He’s a little harsh, but then he’s like ‘You know I love you.’”

And Damon is well aware that means situations such as cancer are rougher on the loved ones than on the one fighting the disease.

“Your parents really love you and want the best for you, and seeing you really bad and in bed for a week straight and not talking …,” Damon said. “My mom was always in the hospital with me, and my dad, brother and sister would come when they could. When they saw me, I was still the same as when they left me the last time.

“When I’m asleep, I really don’t know what’s going on, but your family sees you being just the same for four or five days and they’re like, ‘Oh my god, what’s happening?’”

“His mom and dad and brother and sister are just very positive people, even in very difficult times they’re still very positive about things and want him to enjoy his time,” Wombaker said, noting his mother, in particular, has been a rock for her family.

“She’s a strong woman,” he said of Pelayo. “I don’t know how she does it. And Alondra’s been really strong on her end, too. I know they’ve been going through a lot the past couple of years, but mom is a very strong woman even though it’s got to be tough on the family.”

But Pelayo counters that the support she has received from people in Pahrump contributes to that strength, just as did for Villegas’ mother in the months before he died.

“I would like to say thank you for all of the support for her family and for my family,” Pelayo said. “I feel so proud of the community of Pahrump, so proud of all of the support. The coach, Mrs. Ferrell, was one of the best supporters these past two years. I’m so grateful for her and all of the teachers in this school, the principal, Mr. Wombaker, all the teachers for my son, Damon, and my daughter, Alondra.

“I’m very, very happy. I can’t say all of the names, but everybody knows who has supported me through the different things in different ways.”

Part of that support came from the feelings people had for the two boys battling cancer.

“Elijah was amazing,” said Lori Odegard, Rosemary Clarke’s athletic director and an American history teacher. “I taught him in sixth grade. He had a kind heart, an amazing child. It was a sad loss when he passed away.”

“The one thing I remember about Elijah was his smile was contagious,” Wombaker said. “He always seemed like he was a very happy kid.

“My wife and I went to his service, and the thing I saw in the video was he was always smiling, What amazes me is the fortitude and the resilience to know that you’re going through such a terrible thing but still keep perspective. He was always with his friends, and just a really good kid.”

Wombaker has similar feelings toward Chavez.

“Damon, he wanted to come to school last year and just be in the classrooms with the kids because he missed his friends,” he said. “And it said a lot about the kids because they helped him get to and from places, and even through he wasn’t moving well he still came and put in as much time as he could here before he had to leave. It just says a lot about him.”

Having to leave school was a blow to Damon, who had hoped to play soccer this year. Cancer or no cancer, he is already looking ahead to next season.

“I wanted to play freshman through senior year, but then I got this,” he said. “I stopped going to chemotherapy, so I’ve got to focus on physical therapy now. I’m going to go to summer tryouts and try and play soccer in 10th (grade). I don’t know if I’m allowed, but it’s sort of boring not doing the sport that you love.

“You’ve got to do something. Right now I’ve just got the house 24/7, just laying there, playing video games. You have to get out, run, walk, do something outside.”

Damon can talk about the various procedures he has undergone and the things cancer has done to his body in the calm, matter-of-fact way a fellow student might outline his school schedule. He has been dealing with this for two years, and while it never gets easy, he has adjusted to life as a patient while never losing his positive attitude and will to live.

“I’ve always had a good mental outlook,” Damon said. “I never thought of ending it. Physically, the walking part is sort of rough for me because the doctor said there is no problem with the leg, no leg extensions because I wouldn’t grow much because I’m pretty tall. But I’ve grown like an inch and a half, and now I have a big limp when I go to the left foot.

“Right now I just have metastases in the lungs, I did have … sarcoma in the bone, but they were able to save the leg, so that’s a good thing. I’ve had a port, a biopsy, the big prosthetic leg, the metal bone, lung surgery. I’ve had about five procedures, plus going through chemo.”

That’s a lot for anyone, much less a 14-year-old who was supposed to be on a soccer field this fall.

Pelayo noted sarcoma is much more common in kids than in adults, and, in fact, it accounts for just 1 percent of adult cancers but 15 percent of childhood cancers, according to Medical News Today. But statistics matter little when it’s your loved one fighting cancer, and Damon acknowledges that, despite his stoic attitude, the road has been a tough one.

“It’s hard to go through,” Damon said. “The chemotherapy makes you feel really bad for such a long time. You have like four or five days to get better from it, and then you go to it again and you just feel bad again. It was a hard eight to 10 months for me, but I got through it. I was feeling good, then I had to get more chemotherapy for six, seven months when I had the body collapse.”

Right now, Damon said he feels great, at least relatively speaking. No longer on chemotherapy, the Oct. 17 match was the second time last week he made it out of the house and to the school gym, even if paying attention to the match wasn’t on his agenda.

“He’s always funny, never depressed,” brother Jose said. “I think that’s what makes him special. He just misses playing sports, but hopefully one day he gets better and he can play them again.”

That would be the best possible outcome, and there wasn’t a person in the gym who wouldn’t relish seeing Damon Chavez take the field for Pahrump Valley High School. But in a way, something good already has come out of so much bad.

“The great thing is when you get kids involved and they start to believe in something, it makes it even more valuable to them, too,” Wombaker said. “They’re understanding and compassionate, and that’s what you want to have in kids.”

“I was so excited with the turnout,” Odegard said. “Pahrump always turns out for their people, and RCMS is such an amazing school and very supportive. I’m proud of our community and proud of our school for putting on such a great event and doing something so wonderful for two amazing families.”

The event raised $1,535, Ferrell said.

“Each family will be getting a check for $767.50,” she said. “These funds were raised from T-shirt sales, concessions and donations.”

“Honestly, a big hand goes to Chris Ferrell, the head coach,” Odegard said. “She really spearheaded this and got things organized and worked very hard to get the shirts and get the kids on board, get the school on board. A big hand goes to her for all of her hard work.”

Pelayo continued to express appreciation for everything, but first, she had words of advice.

“I would like to tell all people who have kids or in the future who have kids, when your kids feel pain in any part of the body, please go to the doctor. Pay attention,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “The sarcoma is one of the more common cancers for kids. It’s normal for the doctors, but not for regular people.

“God bless everybody, God bless the whole town of Pahrump, and we will be together praying not just for my son, but for everybody, all of the sick people with different cancers.”

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