Teachers at Bel-Aire Elementary in Gulfport say they are like family and the diagnoses of two of their own with a deadly disease has brought them all closer together. On Wednesday, the school sponsored a benefit blood drive for Denise Albritton and Paula Toups, both of whom are teachers battling cancer.
Watching boys and girls learn is all Denise Albritton has ever wanted to do.
"She teaches really good," said Ciera McMillan, a fourth grader. "She's smart."
Her 17-year teaching career temporarily stalled last year when doctors told her she had Burketts Lymphoma. The cancer diagnosis meant having lots of blood transfusions.
"It doesn't differentiate between good cells and bad cells," said Albritton. "It just kills everything so you're constantly needing renewed blood."
Jessie Olison's fear of needles had always kept her from giving blood, but when Bel-Aire sponsored a drive the custodian remembered a conversation with teacher and cancer patient Paula Toups.
"I told her that I was so afraid of needles that I couldn't do it. I couldn't donate blood," said Olison. "She told me she said 'You know what I'm so afraid of cancer'. So that really encouraged me to give."
Teacher Judy Boyd said "With any family you have your ins and your outs and everything else but when it comes down to it we've all bonded together and know that we have to be here to support each other."
That support is evident all around Denise Albritton's classroom. Students, teachers and friends continually give her frogs, which represent the message Fully Rely On God.
"My friends are so special to me," said Albritton. "Everyone has been praying for me and it's just I will never forget that."
The folks over at Bel-Aire have reason to be optimistic. Denise Albritton says her cancer is in remission.