Summer’s gift

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Summer’s gift

While fighting her own bout with cancer, an Atlanta teen gives others comfort as they battle against the disease.

While fighting her own bout with cancer, an Atlanta teen gives others comfort as they battle against the disease.

The hair. It had been a point of pride; long, dark tresses that cascaded past her shoulders. It shone in the sun. And now it was coming out in clumps. The chemo did that.

She made a hard choice. On a sunny November afternoon last year, she sat in a plastic chair in the backyard of her mom and stepdad’s Atlanta home. Beside her was her twin brother, Jordan, who’d agreed she didn’t need to face the shears alone. She heard the clack of scissors, the whirring of a barber’s shaver.

She closed her eyes as her best friend, whom she’d known since the sixth grade, reached for the remaining strands on her head. Snip-snip. Snip. When her friend faltered, Summer’s step-brother took over.

In a few moments, he was done. Brother and sister were bald. The hair she’d tended so carefully lay on her lap and on the patio. She reached for a hand-held mirror and studied her face, her head.

In that moment, everyone who knew and loved Summer Dale agree, something profound occurred. Summer, who’d faced each day with closed doors and tears, decided that life was too precious to waste. Cancer took her hair; it would not steal her spirit. Thus began a year-long journey.

Even as her body weakened, Summer grew in wisdom and maturity.

Summer rose above her disease, founding a nonprofit organization to help other young people cope with cancer. She shared gifts and hope and laughter with children and their parents.

She was walking proof that bald is beautiful.

2. A mysterious pain

Two years ago, Summer was like any other teen, focused on the minutiae of a life still unfolding: her appearance, classroom intrigues, the latest “American Idol.” The boundaries of her world were narrow; she’d not lived long enough to fully appreciate a universe that extended beyond relatives and classmates.

But that changed in the summer of 2011. Summer came home from a sleepover complaining of a pain at the base of her spine. She’d been tumbling with some friends, she told her mom, Lynne Dale; she must have bruised her bottom.

Instead of going away, the ache moved to her left pelvic area. An orthopedist said she had an inflamed joint on the left side of her pelvic bone and prescribed medicine and physical therapy. It didn’t work; the treatments only exacerbated her pain. That October, she underwent an MRI at Childrens Healthcare of Atlanta/Scottish Rite. Lynne and her ex-husband, Al Dale, Summer’s dad, went with her.

By that time, “her pain had gone nuclear,” Lynne said. At Summer’s suggestion, staffers strapped her legs to keep her still for the 45-minute scan.

The probe revealed a “blob” on the left side of her pelvic bone. It also revealed why Summer hurt so badly: The bone had broken. After reviewing the scan, hospital staffers “had these awful looks on their faces,” Lynne recalled.

No one said the word, but it hovered, unspoken. Cancer.

“It was a stunning moment,” said Al.

“We were all scared,” Lynne said.

A biopsy showed Summer had epitheliod sarcoma, a cancer that spreads quickly in soft tissues. It’s rare, usually found in young people. Worse news followed: The cancer had migrated to her lungs.

When they told her the biopsy’s results, Summer lowered her head, her hair a dark curtain, and wept.

3. Team Summer

Haley Kilpatrick had known the Dales since she was a middle-schooler profiled in an ABC News story more than a decade ago about the perils of female adolescence. Lynne was the segment’s producer.

They stayed in touch, even though their careers took each in different directions. Lynne gave up the news business, with its frequent dashes to the airport, for more reasonable hours selling Atlanta real estate. Kilpatrick founded Girl Talk, which matches middle-school girls with older female mentors, and is now its CEO.

When she learned that Summer had cancer, Haley visited Summer not long after the teen had cut her hair.

She brought with her several hundred silicone wristbands, the sort that are in vogue to remember people or promote causes. They were purple, Summer’s favorite color. Kilpatrick suggested selling them for $5 apiece with half the sales defraying out-of-pocket costs for Summer’s care. The balance could be donated to a charity of Summer’s choice.

It was a pivotal moment. Summer was looking for something to do, something that would matter. She said yes, happily.

“By Christmas, she seemed like a new person,” Kilpatrick said. “She was like the old Summer, the part we knew and loved, and was beginning to blossom.”

Her brother appointed himself a chief wristband salesman. “Finally,” he said, “I have something to do!”

The little silicone bands sold quickly. Scores of kids at Riverwood High, which Summer attended before her illness, sported the bands. Others who learned about the wristbands from emails and texts soon wore them, too.

But what to do with the money? Lynne figured Summer would give it to the American Cancer Society or the children’s hospital. “Summer,” she said, “had a different idea.”

During a checkup at Scottish Rite, Summer met an 11-year-old girl — like her, bald. The child lived a two-hour drive from the hospital and made the round-trip to Atlanta every day. Summer let her borrow her iPhone; minutes later, the youngster was engrossed in the computer game Angry Birds.

The older girl wondered out loud to her mother what she could do to help the kid while away the hours traveling to and from the hospital. Mother and daughter exchanged ah-ha! looks. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Lynne asked.

Summer was. Using money from the sale of wristbands, the teen bought the girl an iPad Touch, a portable gaming device to help her pass the time on Georgia’s highways. And so Team Summer was born.

Summer created a Team Summer Facebook page featuring a glamour shot of herself wearing feather earrings, a khaki top and vest, baldly defiant at the disease. She urged people to post photos of themselves wearing their Team Summer wristbands.

One morning, logging on to the computer, Summer saw a photo of Pierce Brosnan on the Facebook page. The actor who’d played Agent 007 for nine years sported a familiar purple band on his wrist.

Team Summer gained momentum. It funded a trip to an amusement park for a little boy who’d known cancer nearly all his short life. Another child, 7, with cancer in his collarbone got an iPad Touch.

And a young woman got a badly needed jolt of self-confidence.

Lacey Johnson wanted to be a dancer or model. She had the build and looks, but osteosarcoma, cancer in her left knee, changed that. Surgeons removed the joint, replacing it with a prosthetic device. They inserted a steel rod in her leg.

They ordered chemotherapy, too. The Sandersville resident lost her hair. She stopped wearing makeup, tossed aside her stylish clothes and hid her beauty under baggy shirts and pants.

“I went from having everything in the world. It all went crumbling down around me,” said Johnson, 21. “I felt so ugly.”

She remembers the phone call from her social worker at the children’s hospital. Would she be interested in a glamour photo session, with fancy clothes, makeup, elegant backdrops? For free?

“I took it as fast as I could,” said Johnson. “I needed something to make me feel better.”

The shoot took place at the home of Roswell photographer Brenda Richterkessing, a friend of Summer’s mom who’d been photographing Summer for several years. Johnson sat while others applied makeup and helped her into stylish clothes. The camera clicked. Johnson posed. She could have worn a wig, but did not.

“I was completely blown away,” she said. “I thought I looked great.”

So did a stranger, a lovely teen named Summer who visited as the shoot ended. “She was 10 feet tall, it seemed like,” Johnson said.

“And she was bald, like me.”

Antonio Hernandez of Austell remembers what happened when Team Summer gave him a laptop computer.

“It made me feel like I was loved,” said Antonio, 13, whose leukemia is in remission. “Now, I feel like I can do what I want — go to school, get a career, get my muscle car.”

He wants a ’69 Camaro — of course, a Super Sport.

Those were good times. In late April, she and her mom flew to California to see “American Idol,” one of the teen’s favorite TV shows. Her babysitter, who’d kept in touch with the family, arranged it all — free tickets from Delta Air Lines, free accommodations and on-the-house “Idol” VIP passes. The highlight of that trip: meeting judge Steven Tyler. The frontman for Aerosmith popped a walnut in her mouth, then asked if they could take a photo together.

In a televised account of her visit on Fox 5 Atlanta, Summer marveled that “some bald chick” could get such royal treatment.

“It was amazing,” she said. “Like a dream come true.”

But underlying the fun was a disease that wouldn’t quit. Despite trips to Scottish Rite and repeated treatments at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Summer’s cancer kept flaring up. She’d undergone radiation and operations to remove tumors in her lungs and brain. By fall, she’d moved to the ground floor of her mom’s home; Summer no longer could ascend the stairs.

Last September, she told her best friend, Sierra Lulli, that their time together was limited. “I’m dying,” she said.

Sierra, who’d faltered while trying to cut Summer’s hair 10 months earlier, urged Summer to keep fighting. “Surprisingly, she was happy,” said Sierra, 16.

Others noticed, too. On an October trip to get her nails done, Summer turned to her mom and smiled. “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been,” she said.

The trip exhausted Summer. Returning home, she went to her bed.

“She never got out again,” said her mother. “Not once.”

On Nov. 11, about an hour after sunset, Summer died.

4. A lasting legacy

Early afternoon, and the lunch crowd at a Sandy Springs pizza joint was beginning to thin. Summer’s parents and some of her friends waited to meet a little boy, Team Summer’s latest beneficiary. Everyone had noticed how much he enjoyed using an iPad while undergoing treatment at Scottish Rite; by day’s end, he would have his own.

The kid was en route from Cumming, and typically bad traffic had delayed his arrival. That gave everyone time to remember.

Johnson, the aspiring model whose ego got a needed boost: “Summer changed my life.”

Kilpatrick, who came bearing wristbands: “Look at all of us. This is why we’re here.”

Al, her dad: “This gave her a direct way of doing good.”

Lynne, her mom: “This is what Summer wanted.”

Summer’s parents vow to continue their daughter’s legacy, and small wonder. As long as Team Summer exists, spreading happiness where it’s so desperately needed, is she truly gone? Is there a better reason to give a gift?

Has bald ever been more beautiful?

Visit teamsummer.org to learn more about Summer Dale’s nonprofit organization or make a donation.

Honoring Heroes

Today’s Personal Journeys is a special tribute to a young woman who embodied the best of Atlanta. When confronted with a serious condition, teen-aged Summer Dale stepped outside her struggles to help other children coping with cancer and the debilitating effects of chemotherapy. It’s an honor to recognize Summer and her work in our annual Holiday Hero feature. PNC Bank will contribute a $150 gift card to Team Summer, kids helping kids with cancer, the charity Summer founded.

During the next two weeks, we will publish stories about other Atlanta residents nominated by readers for their selfless contributions to our region. These Holiday Heroes are an inspiring group of people, and come from every corner of metro Atlanta. Their contributions are a reminder that the spirit of community is strong in our region. We’ll publish their stories in Living or Metro every day until Dec. 30, and you can find them all at ajc.com. It’s part of our commitment to bring you the best of metro Atlanta

Ken Foskett, assistant managing editor
personaljourneys@ajc.com

Next week: 91-year-old fairy godmother spreads mirth and magic at children’s hospital.

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