NORWELL — There is something about a little girl fighting for her life that gets to people’s hearts and minds.
Stephanie Carr only met the girl a few times before the diagnosis, but news of it left her in tears. She found herself hugging her own daughters more tightly.
Joanne Smith was at home sick in bed when she found herself thinking about the girl’s plight and decided to launch a community event — a road race — to show the family that people care.
The story of 5-year-old Caroline Cronk, nicknamed Calle, who is battling a rare and inoperable brain tumor, has resonated deeply with people of all ages in this small town of about 11,000 residents.
“Calle’s story is so personal it has pulled us all in,” said Carr.
Residents have blanketed the town in red ribbons and signs with messages such as “Hope for Calle” and “Miracles Happen” and launched an array of fund-raisers to support the family, including Sunday’s “Calle’s Miracle Run,” co-organized by Carr and Smith, which has more than 1,700 people of all ages registered to run in the 5K or 10K. As a courtesy, local police will drive Calle and her family to the April 7 event. Calle will be offered the chance to ride up front and, later, to announce the start of the races.
“I cannot believe how strongly Norwell and the surrounding communities came out in support of Calle,” said Carr. “I am so proud of the town when I drive down the street and see the red ribbons and signs on the doors. I hope when Calle looks out the car window she sees those little reminders of how much she is loved.”
Many Norwell residents see an extremely cute kindergartner with a love for the same things as their own children: dancing, singing, playing dress-up, and collecting American Girl dolls. They identify with her family, a suburban couple with two school-aged children; many say they see themselves. Even children are moved; some have launched their own fund-raisers in support of Calle.
“One little girl has inspired an entire community,” said Kristin Jervey, a Norwell resident. Early on, she formed a group of about a dozen mothers to provide the Cronk family — Calle, parents Rachael and Kevin, and brother Connor, 7 — with a regular rotation of meals, housekeeping, and child care.
“Now it has become an entire community effort, and even strangers beyond the community are trying to help. It has taken on a life of its own. Almost every person in our small town — whether or not they know Calle or have kids in the school — wants to help,” said Jervey.
The bulk of that help involves raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund research toward a cure for diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, or DIPG, a pediatric malignancy whose victims face a life expectancy of nine months to a year upon diagnosis. Calle was diagnosed on Nov. 15, 2012.
Over the past few months, schoolchildren have sent Calle handmade cards, baked cupcakes, and sold bracelets. High school students have launched pep rallies, prayer groups, and taken to social media to inform citizens and several celebrities of the situation. People in Norwell and surrounding towns have held numerous events, including an egg sale, a pancake breakfast, a zumba-thon, a gymnastics event, a princess party, and a youth beauty pageant.
A “Hope for Caroline” Facebook page has drawn more than 14,000 followers, and, in turn, inspired prayers and best wishes from far-flung places, including St. Paul’s Cathedral in London; Melbourne, Australia; and even from honeymooners in Cancun, Mexico.
“The family is taking this nightmare and turning it into a positive for other children, and that is about community, too: people giving,” said Jervey.
After Calle’s diagnosis, the Cronk family formed a nonprofit foundation, Hope for Caroline Inc., which has since raised more than $200,000 toward research and to support families with a child diagnosed with this type of glioma, a fast-growing cancer that arises in the brain and carries a bleak prognosis.
Federal funding for research is virtually nonexistent in the current economy. But a handful of clinical trials funded by private donations offer some hope, and the family has donated $100,000 to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute to support an ambitious trial that uses brain-stem biopsies drawn from a handful of children nationwide presently afflicted with DIPG.
Hope for Caroline Inc. recently linked up with the DIPG Collaborative, an association of foundations unified with the mission of efficiently funding and inspiring research for a cure. About 200 children a year are diagnosed with the cancer. It typically strikes those between 5 and 9 years old. Calle’s tumor is in the middle of the brain stem, which controls vital functions such as breathing.
“I think tons of people have been affected by Calle’s story,” said Jodi LaFountain, a Carver resident and creator of “Caring Crowns,” an annual youth beauty pageant and fund-raiser at Plymouth South High School. Calle was crowned a few weeks ago at the event, which raised $1,600 for Hope for Caroline Inc.
“People just want to help and be a part of it,” said LaFountain.
She said she teaches dance to a young girl from Bourne who heard about the diagnosis and sold ribbons to family and friends and raised $500 for Calle, a stranger to her.
“People are so incredible. It is mind-blowing to see how people have come forward,” said Kate Snowden, Calle’s grandmother. She said the countless acts of kindness have helped sustain the family during an impossible time.
Sharon Ramos, Calle’s aunt and cochairwoman of a donation committee, said the outpouring of support has been incredible. She shared notes sent from individuals and groups offering prayers and support: A 6-year-old girl gave up birthday presents in lieu of donations to Hope of Caroline Inc.; a confirmation class in Hingham is praying for Calle; and, most recently, a high school softball team in Hanover is holding a youth clinic and donating the proceeds to the foundation.
Kelli Reed, the other cochairwoman of the donation committee and an organizer of a June 7 fund-raising auction, said virtually everyone she meets in Norwell has been deeply affected by what Calle and her family are going through.
“It is just every parent’s worst nightmare. We all just want to reach out in any way that we can, whether it is saying prayers and remembering Calle every night or anything we can do,” said Reed.
Carr said the little girl and her family are touching hearts and minds here and beyond.
“Every event connected to Calle has a strong energy of hope, and you feel lucky to be a part of it,” she said.