The Meadow Glens Elementary School climbing wall has six paths to the top. With its double overhang, the number one climb is by far the most difficult.
Michael Gustafson completed that climb in third grade – the only kid in class to do it. By the time the rock climbing unit came around in his fourth grade year, Michael was in the midst of treatment for brain cancer.
“He was in and out of school, and he happened to be in school for the rock climbing unit. And Mikey wanted to climb up the double overhang,” said Chris Benyo, Meadow Glens’ gym teacher. “I was thinking to myself, ‘Don’t do it Mikey. Don’t do it Mikey. I don’t want you to be – you’re dealing with so much right now.’”
A Determined Athlete
But Mikey was determined to complete climb number one. As he lifted his body up, hand over hand, classmates and parent aides stopped to watch.
“The kids were cheering and when he finally made it to that last pull up over the last overhang, he was tired, he was beat,” said Benyo. “But he kept going, he made it to the top, he rang the bell and the class went absolutely crazy.”
Benyo, an avid marathoner, was so proud of Michael that he gave him the medal he’d received from his first Boston Marathon.
“And Mikey being Mikey comes back to school the next day and he gives me his gymnastics medal, which interestingly enough with this challenge that we’re doing, it looks as though the gymnastics guy on the medal is doing a handstand,” said Benyo.
Give a Hand, Take a Stand
Handstands were Michael’s thing. The non-profit Gift From a Child is using that as inspiration for their new social media challenge: Give a Hand, Take a Stand.
“It was kind of a metaphor for how many families’ lives are turned upside down by their child’s cancer diagnosis every year,” said Gift From a Child’s Meredith Conway.
Gift From a Child is funded by the Swifty Foundation, which was started by Michael and his family shortly before he died at age 15. They’re encouraging people to post a video of themselves doing a handstand to raise awareness and funds for pediatric cancer.
Spreading the Challenge
Some high school sports teams are accepting that challenge, including at Michael’s former school, Naperville North.
“The girls swim team is doing the Give a Hand, Take a Stand challenge and I want to get more teams involved at Naperville North to take the challenge and challenge other teams within the Naperville community to do it next,” said Conway.
If you can’t do a handstand and want to participate, you can also “give a hand” by shouting out someone who exemplifies courage, compassion, and perseverance. Just make sure you tag the Swifty Foundation and Gift From a Child and use the hashtag #Handstands4Cures.
Curing cancer is the obstacle the Swifty Foundation and Gift From a Child are trying to overcome, just like Michael defeated the wall.
Benyo renamed climb number one at Meadow Glens “Mikey’s Mountain” and hung up his photo next to it, in honor of that accomplishment.
“When kids are rock climbing they notice his picture on the wall over here and they ask me about it and it gives me an opportunity to tell them about Mikey,” said Benyo. “He touched a lot of lives – definitely mine, that’s for sure.”
His Mission All Along
Shortly before he died, Michael’s mother Patti recorded a video of him talking about what he called his “master plan.” That included starting the Swifty Foundation and eventually finding a cure for cancer.
“I’m not really sure right now who I’m helping but my goal is to help as many people as I can,” Michael said in the video.
Continuing that spirit of giving Michael embraced his entire life.
Naperville News 17’s Casey Krajewski reports.