Joan Wilder: Journalist, Writer, Editor

Cancer survivor funds scholarship

Special Returns to Senders: Cancer Survivor Funds Scholarships at School

CITY WEEKLY Six years ago, the cards and letters started coming to South Boston native Billy Hanson.

Some were written in little-kids’ print, crayoned characters on construction paper, with the kind of child-like sentences that go right to the heart.

“We love you. Please get better,” wrote St. Ambrose Elementary School kindergartner Stephanie Lyy, whom Hanson had never met.

Farah Bernier, an eighth grader, wrote: “We’re sending these cards to make your hopes grow more and more so you’ll get well sooner. God is with you.”

When the first batch of letters came in 1993, Hanson, then 22, was finishing the third round of chemotherapy for a cancerous tumor that had been diagnosed only weeks after his graduation from Williams College.

Relying on the support of family and friends, he dug in and tried to remain positive through the seemingly endless process of treating his testicular cancer. After surgery, though, chemotherapy was hard to take; he felt depleted, in body and mind.

Then those letters from the children at St. Ambrose in Dorchester began to arrive.

“I was ridiculously moved by the cards,” said Hanson, now 28.

His mother, Nancy Hanson, who teaches at Archbishop Williams High School in Braintree, had talked about her son’s cancer with her friend, Sister Mary Rose Fitzsimmons, a teacher at St. Ambrose.

“I told her not to worry about Billy,” recalled Sister Fitzsimmons, “that we’d have the eighth graders and the kindergartners pray for him. They sent him cards on Halloween, Christmas, and Easter and prayed for him every day. Children have a lot of power with God.”

“When the cards came, there were about 30, I was at a point where I was starting not to be able to make it anymore,” said Hanson, who gave the commencement address at St. Ambrose earlier this month. “The cards had a powerful effect on me. The power of the words, the power of the situation I was in, all of it made me feel that there was a quasi-spiritual network of people I didn’t know who were supporting me. I guess it was a realization about the ability of human beings to evoke a higher power, a spiritual power, whatever you want to call it.”

Wanting to give something back “for all that I’ve been given,” Hanson started a $2,000 scholarship in 1996, which he gives a St. Ambrose student each year to pay the school’s annual tuition. So far, three students have benefited.

Cancer-free for six years now, Hanson works at KPMG Consulting in Boston.

“By ’96, I’d gotten to a point where I was confident in my health and confident professionally, and decided I needed to give something back,” he said. “What jumped out at me immediately was what a charitable thing the St. Ambrose kids had done for a stranger. I knew it was a socio-economically lower-income school and figured a scholarship would be helpful.”

“This is really an inner-city, multi-cultural, and multi-religious school,” said Sister Fitzsimmons. “We have children who are practicing Buddhists and Pentecostal Baptists, children from Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and of course Vietnam, where Hang is from.”

Hang is Hang Tran, the bright-eyed 14-year-old girl who this month graduated from St. Ambrose, thanks to Hanson’s scholarship this year. She earned her eighth-grade tuition by writing the winning essay on what education means to her. Next fall, she plans to enter Boston Latin School.

In her essay, Tran wrote that when she arrived here from Vietnam she felt hated for the color of her skin and “lonely in this strange land” until she found St. Ambrose four years ago.

So far, Hanson has managed to raise the money for his awards through parties with “friends and friends of friends,” who make small donations.

“I’m hoping to elevate my fund-raising efforts,” he said, adding he received donations this year from Dorchester state Representative Martin J. Walsh and South Boston state Senator Stephen F. Lynch.

Ultimately, he said, he wants to raise enough money to endow the scholarship.

“I’m grateful to Billy Hanson,” said Tran, who periodically writes to the man who gave her a year’s tuition and, in the process, a larger dose of confidence.

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