Classmates gather from far and wide for a rally to remember 

By FAITH HUFFMAN | News-Telegram News Editor

Each year Hopkins County hosts a walking event to raise money for the American Cancer Society to pay for cancer research, and other local program such as Road to Recovery and others designated to help those dealing with cancer. The event also celebrates cancer survivors, recognizes those suffering  the disease, while at the same time remembering those who have lost battles to the fatal illness and honoring the families, friends and care-givers who have helped fight those battles.

Teams are formed for those purposes, and each year new names are added to the lists of honorees and remembrances. 

This year, one special team will include more than a dozen young women from not only all parts of Texas, but some from other states for the first time in seven years. Each young woman has two things in common. They each were members of the 2000 graduating class at Sulphur Springs High School and were all friends of Michelle Champagne, a young woman described as “bubbly,” strong and brave during her  5 1/2 year battle with leukemia. She was also one of the first to circle the track at the first-ever Relay For Life fundraiser for the American Cancer Society in Sulphur Springs in April 1998.

�We wanted to do this for her,� said Natalie Price, who along with friend Holly McMahan Ragan took the idea for a team in Champagne�s memory. �We loved her so much. This is an honor to us that we get to do this for her. She gave so much to us. This is something we can do to honor her and her family.�

Price explained the whole thing really got started as “a little idea at the kitchen table,” something a lot of Champagne’s friends have wanted to do for a number of years, but just haven’t found the time or been able to organize. When the relay was mentioned again by Price and Ragan, it was determined a query would be sent out to all the e-mail addresses, some eight or more years old, they could think of from their class and group, to see if anyone would be interested in participating in the relay.

�We e-mailed to see who would be interested thinking it would never work. I am just overwhelmed by the response the e-mails got,� said Price, who herself now lives and teaches high school in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex area. �I think the Lord wanted us to do this for Michelle. The way it�s all come together I believe it�s the Lord in it. Everything we need something, someone says, �Oh, I�ll bring that.� Everything we ask is being taken care of.�

Not only did they say they would be interested, but quite a few, many people the young women haven’t communicated with on a regular basis, more than a dozen initially confirmed, with only two having to regretfully decline after learning of scheduling conflicts. Some still live in Hopkins County, others are scattered throughout the state, while two committed to traveling the distance from another state .

Price, Ragan Amber Garrett Hatcher, Haley Nelson Harrelson, Amanda Birchfield Oyler, Sandy Cavanaugh Reed, Shawna Sartin, Shara Brantley Wofford, Lauren Flemens Connally, Meredith Doyle, Amber Allison Chauncey and Lacy Pogue all still live in Texas, and will drive in. But, Katy Sellers will be coming in from Washington, D.C., and Lyndsay Caldwell from Colorado.

They all were Champagne’s closest girlfriends, many from as far back as first grade at Travis Elementary School but all at least fifth grade at Douglas Intermediate School. They remember Michelle as a friend a positive person who thought of others to the very end, one Price says continues to inspire her friends.

Her friends remember her as being a happy, bubbly youth, someone who always smiled, laughed a lot, and very healthy until she was first diagnosed with leukemia.

Champagne was diagnosed with acute lymphocitic leukemia in January of 1994 at the age of 12. Chemotherapy sent the disease into remission after one month, but she continued the treatments every week for 2 1/2 years. In August of 1997, the cancer returned, sending her back to Children’s Medical Center for more than 230 days. The leukemia went back into remission after the first month, but other complications resulted in even more medical difficulties which required even more medical treatment.

As the girls grew older, they recalled making “lots of trips” to Children’s Medical Center in Dallas to see Michelle including one for the cancer patient’s birthday. The second time cancer struck, Champagne parents, Johnny and Kim, moved their family into town so Michelle would be closer to her doctors and treatments. Her friends took turns, and often had designated days visiting her.

Price visited an hour each Wednesday during the girls’ junior year with Michelle, helping lend normalcy to her friend’s life, bringing magazines, talking and painting her nails. She said Michelle’s spirit and determination to fight the disease were evident up to her last visit with the 17-year-old. 

�She seemed so happy, bubbly. I remembered thinking she seemed so healthy. She died Monday morning. I was a shock to me,� Price said.

She later learned that her friend was experiencing a great deal of discomfort that day, and in fact, her family had receive information earlier in the day that her latest test results indicated “she was nearing the end” of her life. But, as she always did, Michelle put others first and strove for normalcy.

�She felt so bad, but she still wanted me to come anyway. She wanted the normalcy first. ... She just wanted things to be normal. It was very touching. She knew, but she was thinking of everyone else first. She always smiled and laughed. You never saw her break down. She tried so hard to be positive. She was our star,� Price said.

That’s why during her battle with cancer stars were the symbol used to identify her in fund raisers or other efforts done in support of the teen. When Champagne returned home in April of 1998 from the hospital, she was greeted by thousands of the “Bright Stars for Michelle” gracing the yards of area residents. In fact, some of the  bright displays still dot the landscape today as a reminder of her spirit.

Champagne’s optimism, endless hope and courageous spirit, which helped her time and again defy the odds and medical science, are also why the team is called Michelle’s Shining Stars.

They hope to be able to make participation of the team in HCRFL an annual event not only to honor Champagne’s memory, but also her parents, Johnny and Kim Champagne, her sister and brother-in-law Cheryl and Steven Vickery, and sister Kristen Champagne.

They also encourage any member of the SSHS Class of 2000, who dedicated their graduation ceremony to Champagne, any of her friends and community who knew her and her family to stop by the Michelle’s Shining Stars team camp site during the May 4-5 Relay For Life to show their support of Champagne’s memory, her family or the team. Any who would like to donate money to help the team raise money for the relay can give cash or check made out to the American Cancer Society to any of the girls on the team.

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