In August 1994, kindergarten teacher Paula Green was gearing up to welcome a new group of children into her classroom at Mangum Primary School in Bahama. She was busy sorting art supplies, arranging furniture and organizing paperwork when she was called into the principal’s office.
“The principal started telling me about a little boy who would be starting kindergarten that year. He had just been diagnosed with a brain tumor and was receiving treatment at Duke,” Paula says. “Then she said, ‘Paula, I’m putting the little boy in your class.’”
The boy’s name was Ross McDaniel. At just 5 years old, he had been diagnosed with a Glioblastoma, a highly malignant classification of brain tumor. His family and teachers were anxious about Ross starting school, but felt it was important that he continue to live life as any other child. He joined Paula’s class and began a journey that would make an unforgettable impact on the lives and hearts of an entire community.
In his years at the school, Ross worked very closely with a team of wonderful teachers: Paula served as his kindergarten classroom teacher; Debbie Scott, his speech therapist; and Laura Hare, his exceptional children’s teacher. In working with Ross, all three women fell in love with the sweet child, but recognized that few people knew anything about brain tumors and the impact they can have on the lives of those affected by the condition.
They decided to get involved with the Duke Forest 5K, a walk intended to raise money for research at the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke and support patients and families living with brain tumors.
“We threw ourselves into the cause,” Paula says. “We held community dances, talent shows, hot dog dinners, raffles, silent auctions and even sleepovers at the school to raise money.”
“We held off campus wine tastings and wrote letters to local businesses asking for donations,” Laura says. “We even wrote a letter to Oprah!”
The teachers wanted Ross, as well as his classmates, to have an opportunity to be involved with the cause, but knew a 5K walk was too much to ask. “We knew that kindergarten children couldn’t walk a whole 5K at the Duke Forest event, so we held a shorter walk in Bahama,” Paula explains. “We wanted the children to understand that they are part of a community, and communities help one another.”
The walk was a huge success; parents and children from across the community got involved and raised money to be donated to brain tumor research. “Even the state superintendent of schools heard about the cause and came out to our walk to show support,” Debbie says. “He called the school, and I remember being so shocked, I wasn’t sure what to say to him!”
When it came time for the big event, the teachers themselves took the money they had raised – about $6,500 – to the Duke Forest 5K in a brown paper bag. “I was walking around with this bag full of money, trying to find someone to give it to in order for it to be donated to the Brain Tumor Center,” Paula laughs.
This would be the first of many donations made to the center by the new “Mangum for Ross Team” – named after the school, teachers and children who loved and supported Ross and his family.
In Ross’ second year at Mangum, the team organized a second short walk with the same goals in mind. This time, they decided to come up with a theme to create more excitement. They went with Ross’s favorite song: “Angels Among Us” by Alabama.
This time, it was the Brain Tumor Center who approached the Mangum for Ross Team.
“Duke asked us if they could use the name ‘Angels Among Us’ as the ongoing theme for their walk,” says Paula. “Of course, we said yes!” And in 1996, the name “Duke Forest 5K” was changed to “Angels Among Us” as a way to inspire hope in the patients and families impacted by brain tumors.
In the spring of 1996, Ross lost his battle with the cancer. The entire Mangum community was devastated. But his teachers, family and friends were more determined than ever to continue their work raising money for research to fight brain tumors. Laura and Debbie joined the Angels Among Us planning committee in 1996, alongside Paula and Ross’s mother, Karen McDaniel, who had become members the previous year. As part of the planning committee, the women worked to organize the Angels Among Us 5K and Family Fun Walk.
Today, the women no longer teach at what is now Mangum Elementary School, but all remain as members of the Angels Among Us planning committee. Since 1995, the Mangum for Ross Team has raised more than $325,000 for the Brain Tumor Center. The Angels Among Us Walk is still held every April, and the Mangum for Ross Team continues to receive donations in Ross’s name.
“None of us thought that we would still be doing this over 20 years later,” Paula says, “but now it’s a passion. We can’t stop until we find a cure.”