In July 2003, on his 5th birthday, Alex Meyer told his parents that he wanted to start kindergarten and learn to read. However, the year before, Alex had been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. He had a bone marrow transplant, went into remission for six months and then relapsed. His doctors said he probably wouldn't live much longer—possibly as little as two weeks.
But Alex was undeterred. "He knew his time was coming but he really wanted to be a kindergartner," Meyer said. Then she heard about Hutch School, a fully accredited K-12 school that serves students or their family members who are going through treatment for a major illness.
Hutch School is the only school of its kind in the U.S. It was founded in 1981, when a Seattle substitute teacher named Betsy Presley began tutoring children being treated at Fred Hutch. Their families were worried about them falling behind.
Each week begins with introductions among the students. "Students visibly relax when they first hear introductions because they learn that their situation is normal here," said the school's director Christie Brown.
The school is staffed by certified teachers, administrative staff and volunteers. A social worker is on hand to help teachers handle students' emotional needs, and each class meets with a social worker once a week to talk and learn coping skills.
The classes are small and the school is large, airy and open, with a common area where kids eat together and participate in activities like art projects and games. It's decorated in student art, including a large colorful mural based on Australian aboriginal art that was created by the entire school under the guidance of visiting artist Nina Crampton. The mural is made up of thousands of dots of paint applied by students with pencil erasers, featuring hand prints, suns, waves, arrows, Orca whales and other symbols and figures.
The school also hires arts professionals to lead students in activities such as writing poetry and songs, building improvised instruments, making pottery, dancing, yoga and many other activities.
"Hutch School is a relief for parents who are worried about their children keeping up with school as well as being in a safe, happy place," Brown said.
Meyer said that the school's sense of community lasted long after Alex was too weak to attend. "The students were so nice. Even when Alex couldn't come to school, they sent a book of drawings, saying, 'I hope you make it back.'"
After Alex died in December 2003, a family friend started a memorial fund in his name and raised $4,000, which the family used for several years to sponsor an annual day of fun for Hutch School students. The memorial fund has long since been spent, but the Meyer family still sponsors the event. The day includes a trip to REI, where they climb the pinnacle wall. After the climb, students enjoy a pizza party and get certificates recognizing their courage and strength, adorned with the Alex Meyer Foundation logo: a smiling stick-figure self-portrait Alex drew when he was at Hutch School.
Meyer is convinced the school's creative, nurturing environment not only made her son's quality of life better but helped him beat his prognosis by giving him something to look forward to each day. Alex lived not the two weeks predicted but six months, and he was able to do what he so desperately wanted to do: He learned to read.
"As soon as he did that, I think he felt like he'd reached his goal and he felt like he could go," Meyer said. "What a great way to close out his life — to be around other kids and have fun and feel normal. That's what Hutch School did for him."