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Fight of a lifetime

Local child battles with Leukemia

May 8, 2014
By Cynthia Littleton - , Westfield Republican / Mayville Sentinel News

SHERMAN - Like most 4-year-old girls, Iona Burkholder has a favorite Disney princess: Ariel from "The Little Mermaid."

But unlike most girls her age, Iona has spent the past three months in and out of the oncology unit at Pittsburgh Children's Hospital as she battles Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. The child of a family with roots in Chautauqua and Sherman is facing at least three years of aggressive chemotherapy treatments to combat the disease that initially rendered her unable to walk.

The debilitating effects of leukemia hit Iona suddenly in early January, when she had to be rushed in the middle of a storm to Pittsburgh.

Article Photos

Iona is pictured with her mother, Maria Gibbons-Burkholder

Costs associated with Iona's medical care have mounted, and to help pay the bills Iona's family and friends hosted an elaborate pasta dinner fundraiser on April 26 at Sherman's Stanley Hose Fire Company hall. The event turned out to be a remarkable display of community support for one of this area's own.

"We are extremely grateful to all the families that came out to support us," says Maria Gibbons-Burkholder, Iona's mother. "I am just overjoyed and couldn't be more pleased at how people connected in their own way. My family brought them to the benefit, but once there people who hadn't seen each other in years were able to reconnect. I'm hearing these amazing stories that are so positive."

Iona and her mother were there in spirit - and by streaming video thanks to a FaceTime linkup. Organizers walked a laptop computer around the fire hall to allow Iona to wave at attendees and see the festivities for herself. Her condition was still too precarious for her to leave Pittsburgh, but the plan is to transfer her care to Women & Children's Hospital of Buffalo within the next week or two.

At the fundraiser, Amish families mixed with children and adults sporting tie-dyed T-shirts and dreadlocks, along with plenty of other locals and a host of musicians. Gibbons-Burkholder has spent the past seven years working as volunteer coordinator for the Great Blue Heron Music Festival, and that community turned out in force - with instruments and amplifiers - to make it a party with a purpose. Iona is truly a child of the festival, having been born during the Blue Heron gathering in 2009.

Blue Heron founder Julie Rockcastle and others helped enlist local businesses to donate items for an elaborate Chinese raffle. Area artists donated items for a silent auction, and the bake sale table was overflowing with cupcakes, cookies, pies and other gooey goodies.

Two clowns turned out in full regalia to entertain kids with balloon art, and there was a Kids Zone crafts area - decorated with a plastic backdrop featuring Ariel - to keep little hands busy. Organizers even had "Iona's Army" T-shirts and jewelry for sale. The fundraiser also coincided with a Red Cross blood drive across the street at Sherman Central School.

The proceeds from the event will help defray the expenses of the family having to live in Pittsburgh unexpectedly and the costs of returning to the Chautauqua area.

Iona's prognosis for recovery is good, though the road ahead will be rough, doctors have warned. The experience has been harrowing for the family, which includes Iona's 6-year-old brother, Isaiah, but also illuminating for Gibbons-Burkholder. The community-building work that she's done over the years for Blue Heron and related events has prepared her for a new path.

Long before Iona fell ill, her mother was working on launching her own non-profit org, Harmony Help, devoted to spiritual wellness and healthy living. Now she has an additional purpose - helping children that find themselves in Iona's situation but without the strong safety net of family and friends.

"Building character is infinitely a more secure investment than a financial portfolio," Gibbons-Burkholder says. "Having social capital and relationships with people, building those bonds is the most secure kind of investments you can make."

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