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Four years ago, Chaleece Leckron lay in a coma and nearly died from spinal meningitis. This past year, the 16-year-old Columbus East High School junior was diagnosed with cancer.
Monday, she stood in a totally revamped room of her family’s Sixth Street Columbus home and acknowledged that she felt more alive than ever.
“This,” she said with a giggle, “is just really overwhelming.”
She stood amid five brightly decorated Christmas trees, new furniture, a new television, a dozen bags of Christmas gifts from Macy’s department store and a sleighful of wrapped presents for her and her family.
Chaleece could scarcely take it all in.
Earlier this year, she prayed for healing from non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a type of cancer that attacks cells in the lymph nodes. And she wished for a year-round Christmas room at her home.
Just in time for the upcoming holiday, Chaleece got positive answers to both:
Recent medical tests showed that her lymphoma, which was diagnosed in May, was in remission thanks to successful chemotherapy treatment.
The Make A Wish Foundation’s Indiana chapter worked with Macy’s to give her the year-round Christmas room she wanted.
The latter left Chaleece speechless, albeit smiling, when she descended the stairs to her family’s 600-square-foot basement that had consisted of a nondescript cement floor and exposed ceiling. She had been told design specialists were going to make over the room, but she didn’t know when.
Late Monday morning, a limo picked up Chaleece and four of her friends at school, then added her mom, Kim. They were whisked to Macy’s at Greenwood Park Mall, where her entourage helped Chaleece fill 12 shopping bags full of items.
While they were away, a team of 25 people — Macy’s employees and Make a Wish staff and volunteers — brought in the furniture, a gas fireplace and artificial trees. That includes one with a “Nutcracker” theme, one of her favorites, and one with a Santa’s workshop motif.
A sign held by one of about two dozen East classmates who lined her driveway for her return that afternoon said it best: “Santa’s elves have been busy.”
“We thought this was a perfect fit for us, since Macy’s does Christmas so well,” said Jennifer Ulsomer, Make A Wish’s wish program manager for the Indiana office.
The whole downstairs project and shopping spree totaled about $8,000 — the average for fulfilling a wish, according to Make A Wish officials.
For Chaleece, a young woman who loves Christmas because it marks a time of family togetherness at home, it felt like a million bucks.
“We have learned not to take anything for granted,” her beaming mom said.
That explains why Chaleece will make one addition to her Christmas room. She will move small ceramic figures from an upstairs mantle to one in the basement as a reminder of her successful bout to overcome cancer.
Her dad, Jimmy, got her a figurine — the first being a young girl in prayer — with each chemo treatment as a sign of each step toward healing.
“The first thing we did when we got the news (about the cancer) was pray,” Jimmy said. “She wouldn’t have made it without Jesus.”
She also had the support of her teenage friends. Four of them over the summer had between eight and 11 inches of their blond and brunette locks cut to donate to Pantene Beautiful Lengths on behalf of their friend. The program partners with the American Cancer Society to give free, real-hair wigs to women fighting cancer.
Her friendship circle extends to The Ridge church, where the family worships.
The downstairs Christmas room makeover wouldn’t have been possible without a group of men from the church who helped Jimmy install a warm-looking pine ceiling, baseboards and electrical outlets. That paved the way for the rest of the work — and the completion of Chaleece’s dream — in a four-hour stretch of decor and design Monday.
“Awesome,” she said when she looked over everything. “Amazing.”
That’s also how she described her surprise welcome home from at least 60 people on her front lawn — students, Macy’s and Make A Wish staffers and others.
Columbus East student and friend Kelby Bennett was among a group of peers who waited 90 minutes in 30-degree temperatures Monday to show her their concern and love.
“She’s such a great, upbeat person to be around,” Bennett said. “So we all just wanted to come out here and celebrate her today. Even with all she’s been through, we’ve seen her stay positive through the whole thing.”
Chaleece herself acknowledged she’d been through a lot this year.
“But,” she said. “I think this makes up for it.”
Before all the well-wishers left the house, Ulsomer presented Chaleece with one final gift and asked her to open it. Inside was a silver star inscribed with Make A Wish’s motto: “Hope, strength, joy.”
“You deserve this,” Ulsomer told her. “And, by the way, we apologize for any lies we had to tell you to make all this happen today.”
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