Tonawanda News — The initials “J.S.” carry deep meaning for Niagara-Wheatfield varsity softball players Aly Gonyea and Mariah Scherrer.
For Gonyea, a captain and four-year starter, J.S. stands for Jessica Stone. Stone was a Niagara Falls High School student and Gonyea’s friend. She passed away of Ewing’s sarcoma in March.
For Mariah, the initials refer to Jim Scherrer, her late father, who died from a form of pediatric cancer in 1997 — 19 years after being diagnosed with it.
The meaning of those letters may run even deeper and reach an entire softball community today. The lives of both Stone and Jim Scherrer will be commemorated when the Niagara-Wheatfield softball team hosts Kenmore West in its third annual charity game, keying on pediatric cancer, at 4:45 p.m.
“This is something that really should continue,” said Gonyea, who pitched the idea of focusing on childhood cancer to coaches Jim and Melanie Proefrock back in March. “Not only does it raise awareness to people all around but it kind of puts all of the players in perspective. Whether it’s cancer or autism, there are things out there bigger than some of our problems.”
The relationship that Gonyea’s family had with Stone played a big part in her request to emphasize pediatric cancer in this year’s game.
Her sister, Olivia, was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma in January 2009. At her first round of cancer treatment a month later, Olivia met Stone. The two developed a bond that helped Olivia through some difficult times.
“Jess was one of the first girls that took to Olivia,” Gonyea said. “That helped Olivia get through her treatments knowing she had a friend there to go to and talk to while she was there.”
Olivia’s cancer is now in remission. Stone, however, passed away as softball season began.
“We had just started tryouts when Jessica passed away,” Melanie Proefrock said. “So the team knew back in March about this girl’s story and her struggle.”
That made it a no-brainer when Gonyea broached the idea of highlighting childhood cancer to both Melanie and Jim Proefrock. Having children of their own, the decision was easy for them to make.
“As soon as you become a parent, if you’re not already in tune and sympathetic to the needs of children, it only intensifies 500 times,” Melanie Proefrock said. “You realize how important health is and how fragile the life of a child is.”
As a result, the Proefrocks had T-shirts made with Stone’s initials printed on the sleeve for the event. At the time, they hadn’t realized that Jim Scherrer passed away from a primitive neuroectodermal tumor, a form of Ewing’s sarcoma, when Mariah was just a few months old.
When Mariah, who helped design the shirts, informed her coaches of the circumstances, the initials became multi-purposed.
“It’s actually a little bit eerie,” Melanie Proefrock said. “It just worked out that way.”
“It really means a lot to me,” Mariah Scherrer said.
The Falcons are teaming up with Carly’s Club for the event. Carly’s Club is an organization that offers support programs for children diagnosed with cancer and raises money for pediatric cancer research at Roswell Park.
Olivia Gonyea will be in attendance, handing out yellow paper ribbons that have Jessica Stone’s and Jim Scherrer’s stories printed on them. The team has been selling donation place cards to raise money. In addition, donations will be collected at the gate, a 50/50 raffle will occur and concession stand sales for the day will be given to Carly’s Club.
Melanie Proefrock said that, while some of her girls may play with heavier hearts than usual, the emotion they’re aiming to channel isn’t sadness, but appreciation.
“It’s appreciation of the little things in life,” she said. “It’s appreciation of being out on the field and being a part of such a positive team.”
The varsity club isn’t the only Niagara-Wheatfield team hosting a game for a cause this week. The junior varsity team will host a charity game to raise money for autism when it takes on Lew-Port at 4:45 p.m. Thursday.
Head coach Kevin Schucker, a marketing teacher at the school, has one of his classes teaming with his softball girls to raise money for the event. Together, they’re selling donation place cards and wristbands in hopes of reaching their goal of $1,000. The girls will wear shirts and socks that promote autism awareness.
Money will be donated to the Autism Society of Western New York and the People Inc. Young Alternative Life Transitions Program at Buffalo State College.
“Sometimes you take for granted how easy life is for us,” Schucker said. “This is a great chance to reflect on people that don’t have life as easy as we do.”
Sam Zimmer, an autistic man close to the family of one of the girls on the team, will throw out the game’s ceremonial opening pitch.
“You just love to see good things like that,” Schucker said. “We play this game every day without even thinking about it or about people that can’t (play it). It breaks your heart.”