(T-G Photo by Jim Davis) [Order this photo]
Parents may be startled, however, to receive the yearbook and see a stuffed monkey among the rows of student photos.
(T-G Photo by Jim Davis)
With this, he is now more susceptible to a relapse of leukemia and other types of cancer in the future. The prognosis for his survival is not statistically promising, and doctors have enrolled the young man in a study using three types of experimental chemotherapy.
He and his mother Rosie have spent much of the year at Monroe Carell Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt, with Mark Kelly receiving school lessons from a homebound teacher. Both retired Navy veterans, Rosie and her husband Mark are also parents to Sarah and Hunter.
Along with the diagnosis of a serious illness comes time away from school. Whether students are out of class a day here and there, or weeks and months at a time, the challenge for parents, teachers and the thousand-plus members of Go Team Mark Kelly, a Facebook page the family maintains to update his supporters, is to keep Mark Kelly connected to his friends and peers.
"Rosie gave me the website for Monkey in My Chair and asked what I thought about it," said Casson. "After reading the information, there was no question about it. I definitely wanted to do this for Mark Kelly. I feel this is a great way to keep him involved with us and us with him."
Monkey in My Chair is a program originally developed for pre-school and elementary aged children who are away from school because of a cancer diagnosis. The program provides tools to maintain social interactions with classmates, making the transition in and out of the classroom less traumatic.
Established by the Love, Chloe Foundation, and partners with The Cure Starts Now Foundation, each child is provided with a "monkey kit" which includes a big stuffed monkey that takes their place in school when they are unable to be there.
The kits include a backpack, a book to help teachers explain to students the situation their classmate is facing, a teacher companion guide and other items for classroom use. In addition, Mark Kelly has online access to Monkey Message -- an online component that allows the sharing of pictures and documents between the patient and the classroom.
All kits are sent out at no cost to the families or hospitals.
Casson read a book explaining Monkey's purpose to her class. "He is to take Mark Kelly's place in the classroom and attend all activities the class has."
Monkey received his voter registration card and voted in a mock election at school. He has a folder on his desk to collect different activities which are given to Mark Kelly when Casson visits.
"I take pictures of everything we do and send to Rosie so Mark Kelly knows what we are doing. This lets him know we haven't forgotten him, and he is still very much a part of our class."
Each afternoon and weekend the primate goes home with Casson or a student (after all, he would not enjoy being left in a dark classroom alone at night). So far, he has visited a local nail salon, sitting in a chair as Casson had her nails done. He goes to church with her at Mt. Lebanon United Methodist Church where he helped the acolyte light the candles.
"First time I've ever had a monkey in service," said pastor Doug Dezotell. "One Sunday he sat in the back row and another Sunday he sat on the very front row. He's really helped my preaching," he joked.
Monkey has also attended the children's play at Shelbyville Central High School, a fall festival where he played on inflatables and won a prize. When visiting Cathay restaurant in Murfreesboro, the chef gave him a chef's hat. He's also seen the opening of the movie Breaking Dawn at the Capri Theatre.
He is also well-dressed, "He went to Black and Blue Sports and received a Liberty sweatshirt to replace his Liberty Patriot tee shirt for the winter," said Casson.
"The students were excited the day he arrived. A few students are responsible for taking care of the monkey for the day," Casson said. At the end of the day, they journal their day and activities. When Casson visits Mark Kelly she takes along the journal and photo album.
"I took the monkey to Vanderbilt to visit Mark Kelly the last time he was in the hospital. He enjoyed reading the journal and looking at the photos."
The Cure Starts Now is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Only children between the ages of 4 and 11 who are battling cancer are eligible to receive a free Monkey In My Chair kit. The organization reserves the right to seek approval of the request from the child's attending physician.
"Unfortunately, we do have individuals seek kits that do not actually need them for their intended use. It is because of this that we research the information you provide, making it important you provide us with as much information as possible," says the program's website.
Kits are available for direct purchase, however, with a suggested donation of $75.
"This is a great way for the kids to feel like they are going on this journey with Mark Kelly and to not forget him," said Rosie.
For more information: http://monkeyinmychair.org/