North Davis Elementary School has never been just a place of employment for Paulene Bitners.
Her own children have attended the school — including Nolan and Nellee, who are both North Davis students now — and since the day Bitners began teaching here 18 years ago, the campus has been like home.
“I grew up in a small town in Amador County, and North Davis feels like that,” said Bitners, “like a cross between a small town and a big family.”
That it would feel that way belongs in no small part to Bitners’ own approach to teaching. Her students became her extended family. Well before she was attending her own kids’ Little League games in Davis, she was attending her students’ games. She met their grandparents, volunteered to help at Grad Night when they were graduating and stayed in touch with many as they entered adulthood.
Recently, a former student from many years ago contacted her on Facebook.
“She told me, ‘You have your first grand-student,’ ” Bitners, 47, recalled last week. “It makes your heart burst.”
Now the North Davis community and the Davis Little League community are doing their part to give back to Bitners, to help this beloved teacher and her family through what has been a very tough last year and half.
Bitners was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2012. She had suspected a problem for nearly two years but her doctors, she said, took a “wait and see” approach — an approach that took long enough for the cancer to reach stage 4 at diagnosis, she said.
Bitners underwent a double mastectomy in November of that year, and has since been on a roller-coaster of good scans, bad scans, chemotherapy, radiation, tumors shrinking and new ones popping up.
She was admitted to a clinical trial last month after the previous round of chemotherapy failed to do the trick.
Asking for help
During all of this, the community she loves has been there for her, though reaching out for help proved a little tough in the beginning for someone who was used to being on the flip side.
In a journal she began keeping on www.caringbridge.org not long after her diagnosis, Bitners wrote of the challenges of reaching out.
“I have always had such a hard time asking for help, but am learning to,” she wrote. “I have always told my students that they need to ask me if they need something because I can’t always read their minds, and if they don’t tell me they need something, I won’t know. I guess it’s time for the teacher to learn from her own words.”
The community came through: meals brought to her house in Woodland, cards, donations, posters and letters from students. People offered to drive her kids wherever they needed to go, keep them for sleepovers, “so they could have that normal childhood experience.”
North Davis, Bitners said, encircled Nolan and Nellee, while Da Vinci Junior High “wrapped itself around (eldest son Nathan).”
“You never really know as a person and a teacher how people feel about you,” she said.
Then cancer happens, and you do know.
“It’s very humbling,” Bitners said. “It makes me feel loved, but it’s also about this larger family coming together to make sure my husband and kids have what they need.”
With the support and help of family, friends and colleagues, Bitners made it through that first year of surgeries, treatments, hospitalizations and more and by the beginning of the current school year, was feeling up to going back to teaching, even while continuing with chemotherapy.
She returned to the kindergarten classroom at North Davis with joy.
“I was so excited,” she wrote in her journal, “but have to admit that I was also terrified.
“It had been 10 months since I was in the classroom for a full day. It’s a big change and the beginning of the year is tiring, even for a perfectly healthy teacher! I am pleased to report that other than being a bit more tired at the end of the day … I am so excited to be there every day,” Bitners wrote.
“Even when I don’t feel 100 percent,” she said, “the kids make me forget all about not feeling well. I am truly in the most perfect profession with the most perfect grade level.”
A heavy toll
She wouldn’t get to stay there as long as she wanted to, though — by December, scans showed that while the current chemotherapy was letting her work, it wasn’t working on the cancer, and she would have to take another leave to begin more aggressive treatment.
Nearly as heavy as the toll on her body and spirit was the toll on the family budget.
Bitners’ husband, Andrew, is an electrician with the state Department of General Services, and with Bitners not working, things were getting tight.
They were in danger of losing their home in Woodland, and so much more.
But Bitners’ many friends and supporters would surely say, “what goes around, comes around.”
A call for help went out last month, in the form of a letter:
“We are writing to suggest that it’s time for us as a community to rally and show our support to Paulene and her family for all that they have done over the years,” her friends said in the letter sent to about 200 people.
“As friends of the Bitners, through school, Little League and the community, we are challenging ourselves to help raise an amount approximately equivalent to one year’s salary of a public school teacher in Davis.
“There is so much we are unable to do to make this better for Paulene and her family,” the letter went on. “But one very tangible thing we can do is to help replace some of the salary that she has lost due to her illness. And in turn, hopefully reduce the financial stress and burdens that have come with her cancer.
“If enough of us contribute what we are able, we can make a substantial dent in the financial burdens they are facing. It’s the least we can do for a family that has given so much to our community.”
The letter was signed by friends and colleagues, from former North Davis Principal Judy Davis — who originally hired Bitners — to parents, teachers and community leaders like Sally Albertson, Jeremy Brooks, Bob Dunning and Tracy Skinner.
The group set up a donation site at www.giveforward.com last month and the donations, as well as the love, immediately began flowing.
By Friday, $15,375 had been raised, nearly a third of the way to the $50,000 goal. And many donors didn’t just wish Bitners well, but spoke of what she had done for them as a teacher and friend.
‘Thank you’ a thousand times
For Bitners, the impact has been immediate.
“It has saved our house,” she said last week. “It put food on our table, kept our water turned on. My son received birthday presents because of it.
” ‘Thank you’ doesn’t feel adequate enough to express what our family feels,” Bitners said. “If I said, ‘thank you’ a thousand times, it wouldn’t be enough.”
“Even my kids are humbled by it,” she added. “They say, ‘Wow, they love you, Mom.’ ”
And as the donations roll in, so do the well wishes that brighten Bitners’ days, even when they are spent, as the past few have been spent, in a hospital room at the UC Davis Medical Center.
“It’s kind of overwhelming, the support she gets,” said Bitners’ sister, Janette Layher, who was by sister’s side at the Med Center on Thursday.
“The cards, the notes … it’s incredible,” Layher said. “I don’t think a day goes by that she doesn’t get a note or a call, a text to see how she’s doing. The support is amazing. And I know it really helps Paulene. She may not be able to talk to all of them, but I see her eyes light up, and it raises her spirits.”
‘No better place’
As wonderful as all that support is, it shouldn’t be all that surprising.
“This is a community that hears about a need and fills it,” Bitners noted. “And there is no better place to be as a student, a teacher and a parent than North Davis.”
Make a donation and leave a message of support by visiting https://www.giveforward.com/fundraiser/4804/paulene-bitners-family-fund.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [email protected] or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy