It has been almost six years since Nick Vega last walked the halls of Ramtown Elementary School. But on Thursday morning the Howell High School junior was back at his alma mater to thank the students who turned a creative thought into a successful project to help him and his family.
Last June Nick was diagnosed with bone cancer, just a few months after his father Paul lost his job. In their time of need, the family said they have been overwhelmed by the response from the community, including the efforts of the students at the Ramtown School.
Thursday marked the second phase of a project known as "Stick With Nick," where students bought stickers for a quarter with the money going to the Vega family. Earlier this year the fourth and fifth grade students started the program and raised an incredible $260 with some of the children buying stickers and some just giving a donation to help someone from their community.
That effort was redoubled this week when students in kindergarten through third grade were given the chance to participate and raised an additional $300 for the family.
As if the amount of money raised was not inspirational enough for those who took part, making everything even more impressive is the fact that the whole idea was the brainchild of three of the students at the school.
One of those students, fourth grader Ginamarie Springer, said her brother, Robert, is friends with Nick which is what got her interested in helping.
"I just wanted to do something and this is what happened when we started to do it," she said. "It became a big project and we wanted to do something for him."
Ginamarie said that before Christmas her brother and one of his friends took part in another fundraiser at the high school where they sold bracelets saying "Stay Strong Nick Vega," on them. They then went to the Vega household to deliver the money they raised from the sale of those bracelets.
Having raised close to $600 for Nick, Ginamarie said she still wishes she could have done more, and is going to keep trying to help the family. "If we could do this again I would definitely go bigger and do the whole neighborhood," she said. "I feel like if we could do anything else we would."
She may only be 10 years old, but wise beyond her years. She said Nick's story made her really want to help.
"He's been sick for a half of a year and it's just so hurtful to see someone that you know is good that's sick like that. You always want to do anything you can for them."
As the project started to take shape, Ginamarie got help from one of her friends in her class, Daniella Camporeale, who said she was happy to help in any way she could.
"It was mostly her idea, but I thought it was a good idea so I decided to help her," she said. "I really felt bad for him so I decided to help her raise money."
The two agreed that they never expected to be as successful as they have been.
"Honestly, we didn't think we'd get this far," Daniella said. "We thought it would just be talking about it, but we're never going to do it. But we did it!"
The girls were not alone in getting the school involved, they also got help from fifth grader Brandon Downey, who is Vega's neighbor. Brandon said he was happy to lend a hand along with the other organizers.
"It makes me want to do even more," he said.
And do more he has, going door-to-door to collect money for Vega. Not only that, but in the beginning of the year Brandon also got his classmates to make get well soon cards for Nick. Describing his neighbor as "funloving," Brandon said it has been good to see the community come together for a good cause. "It makes me feel like they care about him."
One of the teachers who has been involved since the beginning in getting this off the ground was Carmela Balassone. With her group of fourth graders leading the way, Balassone said she has been beyond impressed with their determination.
Having talked about doing something since January, Balassone said she was glad to see how well things had gone in the end.
"I'm excited because I've never had this. As a teacher I never had an opportunity to take that idea and see how it evolved. I'm so proud of them," she said.
As he walked out of what had been his fifth grade classroom, Nick said that despite a challenging year, he is now looking toward the future.
"Its been rough. I just kind of go through it and look forward," he said.
The efforts of the school and the community as a whole have not been lost on the family either. Nick's mother, Edith, said they have been "overwhelmed emotionally and spiritually," as they have seen just how much support they have behind them.
"We're very grateful to everyone," she added. "My son is like a celebrity. He's well known everywhere right now. From the bottom of our hearts we're totally grateful."
Paul Vega said he has been very glad to see everyone rallying around his family and his son.
"It definitely lifts your spirits. We saw his face when he saw that people care in the community and it's amazing. It's absolutely magical," he said.
He said the efforts of the students were "very commendable," and added, "It's really blown my mind how responsive the community has been."
From his diagnosis back in June to now, Paul said seeing his son improve has been a welcome sight.
"It's a really good feeling to see him now where he's at. He has really come a long way and it's an accomplishment to him and his bravery."
With all the support the family has received, the parents both agreed that saying thank you does not seem like enough to show how appreciative they are.
"It's the support that means the most to us. that's really the beginning of it that everyone remembers and supports you in just the smallest way. It's the thought of it that means a lot," Paul said.
Despite being unsure of how exactly to best express their gratitude, the Vegas said they are remarkably thankful for everything everyone has done for them.
People who still want to contribute to help Nick's cause can do that on April 27 when they go to the school for elections. In addition to a spaghetti dinner that has become a well known tradition, they will be selling paper meatballs with those proceeds to go to help the Vega family.