Terry Leikam and Kristy Sanchez have looked to their 9-year-old son for inspiration too many times to count in the past year.
It didn't matter that Chase Leikam, a fourth-grader at Willow Creek Elementary, was engaged in a battle for his life. From the time the doctors handed down the grim diagnosis of lymphoma last year to the moment they delivered a clean bill of health earlier this month, Chase has kept up a conviction and courage that's been infectious.
"He never had a doubt. He went from a 51-pound third-grader to getting a broviac catheter and getting all kinds of surgeries. He's the bravest little child I've ever known in my life," said mother Kristy Sanchez, before adding with a note of pride, "And he's ours."
Chase kept up his determination through the most draining and dreary moments of his cancer treatment. The chemotherapy, the hair loss, the seemingly endless streams of pills and medications – Chase kept up a determination and hope that helped his parents and his brother, 11-year-old Reece Leikam, keep up hope.
"When Chase was first diagnosed, we said we'd always stay positive," said father Terry Leikam. "There was no other option."
It was an attitude that inspired many beyond his immediate family. From his fellow students at Willow Creek to the Cherry Creek School District "Homebound" teachers who offered one-on-one personal instruction during the most trying moments of the treatment, Chase's determination has made a difference in the lives of dozens.
Bette Dohr, a teacher with the district's home instruction program, was one of many touched by Chase's recovery. She played a critical role in the family's life during Chase's treatment, and the experience was just as important for Dohr, who's been in the Homebound program for 13 years. She came to the program after teaching in traditional classrooms in Cherry Creek for more than 20 years.
"He was a very sick little boy, but he was just absolutely great. Never did I hear a negative word. Never did he say, 'This is too hard' or 'I can't do this.'" Dohr said. "He was always just really, really positive, even if he was half lying on the couch. He still did math and that type of thing."
Dohr visited Chase in the most intense moments of his cancer treatment; they covered lessons in Sanchez's living room and in Chase's intricate backyard treehouse donated by the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Chase and his family received the good news that he was cancer-free on Oct. 6, but that good news won't stop the effort to keep inspiring and helping others.
Months ago, Chase helped design a T-shirt with a hand-tailored message and mission in mind. The central design of the shirt – a bright yellow paw print with a heart stamped in the middle – takes its cues from off a reward system at Willow Creek that sees students receiving small metal paws in recognition of specific accomplishments.
"You get paws in school," Chase said. "There's white for achievement, black for safety, red for caring and blue for teamwork. That was a really big deal, because if you get four paws, you'd get to eat with the principal."
The T-shirt uses that motif and adds inspiring message spelled out in a bold font. On the back, capital letters exclaim, "TEAM CHASE ROCKS!!! I SUPPORT CHASE AND HIS CURE AND A HEALTHY LIFESTYLE FOR ME!!!" On the front, the message over the paw print reads simply, "CHASE IS AWESOME"
The T-shirt became a symbol of sorts for Chase's peers at Willow Creek. Students in all grade levels wore the shirt at specific times during the year.
"On the 20th of each month, they wear this T-shirt," Chase said, explaining the date's special significance. "That's when my birthday is."
Along with in-class lessons and demonstrations designed to increase awareness, the shirts helped the entire Willow Creek community gain understanding about Chase's illness and show their support for his recovery.
Chase followed up with another design for another T-shirt, one that's designed to continue to serve even more noble purposes. It's for sale at booster.com/teamchase4, and proceeds will go toward a program that was critical to Chase's recovery. The front bears a simple message – "Cancer Stinks!" – scrawled in Chase's handwriting, along with a drawing of an imagined creature.
On the back, Chase offers this explanation for the design: "'The Cancer Creature' – As I think about what it looked like in my belly with huge pinching claws that pinched me inside all over my tummy making me cry a lot." The attribution reads simply, "Chase, Age 9, Lymphoma Cancer Warrior.
He's decided to donate all of the funds from the sale of the shirt to the Cherry Creek School District's Homebound program, an initiative that connects teachers with students who are too sick to attend school. Proceeds from the sales will go toward providing teachers and students in the program with iPads and other technology.
Chase and his family know firsthand how valuable those tools can be. They've come to consider Dohr as an adopted member of their family, thanks to the bonds that formed during one of the most difficult times of Chase's nine years.
"You form a really close bond," Dohr said before speaking about her reaction upon learning that he was cancer-free. "She called me on October 6 and said that he was clear," she added, her voice cracking with emotion and tears flowing freely, "He had a lot of tumors, and to clear all of that in one year … It was amazing."
It's no wonder that Dohr was one of the first people Sanchez called on receiving the news. Through the darkest moments of Chase's struggle, Dohr became a part of the family. She was invested in Chase's recovery, as was the entire Willow Creek community.
"We want people to understand that the Cherry Creek School District offers more than just kindergarten through (high school), more than your school day," Sanchez said. "They offer teachers who teach because that's their life, that's their passion, that's what they want to do. They want to be with these children, and it doesn't get any better for us."