Normally the cover story for Purple Paper naturally features the color purple. But there is no denying that the most inspiring story leading up to this year’s Relay For Life in Exeter is positively pink.
In the Central Valley, the color normally associated with breast cancer became synonymous with the story of Kyle Stutsman, a local teenage boy who had been diagnosed with a rare form a bone cancer in the eighth grade. Friends say he chose pink because it was the most recognized color in the fight against cancer and because it really stood out on a guy’s head. The pink plan worked rallying Kyle’s classmates, teachers, hometown and eventually the entire Central Valley to his cause of finding a cure for cancer.
’Cause of Kyle
Kyle was a star basketball player at Wilson Middle School when he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma at the age of 14. Osteosarcoma is a type of cancer that develops in bone primarily in teens. What started as an aching muscle in his leg turned into a race to save his left leg during a surgical procedure in April 2012.
Following his surgery Kyle received six more months of chemotherapy. Unable to attend school during his eighth grade year, Kyle was able to graduate No. 3 in his class with the help of friends, family and tutors and accepted his certificate with his best friend Bryce Hurick pushing his wheelchair.
Kyle attempted to return to regular classes in February 2013 but nodules discovered on both of his lungs would require a bilateral thoracotomy in July 2013 and continued chemotherapy treatments in Los Angeles.
Despite odds against it, Kyle did resume classes for his junior year of high school in August 2014. Unfortunately, his body started to fail despite his indomitable spirit and he was taken out of school in September. He passed away on Sept. 24 after a difficult three-year battle with cancer, but a battle he never shied away from and faced with a stoicism many adults don’t possess.
“He never complained and kept his eyes focused on God at all times,” his obituary read. “His motto was ‘pain is weakness leaving the body’ and today he is without pain in heaven.”
Kyle was able to maintain a 4.0 GPA in his freshman and sophomore years despite shuttling between treatments and surgeries from Fresno to Texas. He was also able to take a trip to Disneyland with his family, meet his favorite sports hero Kobe Bryant through the Make-A-Wish Foundation and issue a challenge to his teachers and classmates that touched lives far beyond the walls of his high school and hometown.
“He was always a bright kid,” said Julie Watson, Kyle’s aunt and administrative assistant at EUHS. “When he was eight years old he completed a Rubik’s Cube. When I asked him how he did it he said, ‘You just have to know the algorithm.’ Then I went home and looked up the meaning of algorithm.”
During the few short weeks Kyle was on campus, he challenged his classmates, teachers and administrators to raise $10,000 for the American Cancer Society by the time the Survivor’s Lap kicked off at Exeter Relay For Life this May. If they raised the money, Kyle was going to give EUHS Principal Robert Mayo a Mohawk and then dye it pink. Always a prankster and flashing smile, Kyle had given himself a Mohawk and dyed it pink when he began to lose his hair during chemotherapy nearly three years earlier. Kyle’s classmates capitalized on the idea and began coordinating the fund-raising effort.
“Everyone knew Kyle’s story and everyone wanted to help out the effort,” said Bryce Hurick, one of Kyle’s closest friends. “Students came together to support Kyle however they could.”
EUHS senior Roxanne Hudspeth began placing pink buckets in every class to collect donations, each with a Photoshopped image of Principal Mayo with a pink Mohawk. Junior Gianni Allstot launched a Twitter account with the handle #TeamKyle30, which has helped raise $1,000 for Team Kyle, the name of the team for Exeter Union High School students and staff. And a team of more than 20 core students sold pink T-shirts, wristbands, socks, bandanas and necklaces everyone from classmates to faculty on other campuses to raise money. Ag students even sold pink carnation floral arrangements and made pink flower pens throughout the community.
“Ninety percent of students were wearing some kind of pink,” Hudspeth said. “But more importantly, it brought our school together as one big family.”
While the original challenge only included the first-year principal, others quickly got involved including Athletic Director Mike Powell, Band Director Kirk Clague and Counselor/Activities Director Margie Reed. Reed said EUHS’ Relay For Life team raised a total of $2,300 in May but have already raised $6,000 for this year’s Relay thanks to Kyle’s inspiration.
“After 22 years of working here our school has never been more united,” Reed said last September, “and Kyle did that.”
Team Kyle’s efforts were bolstered by an appearance on ABC Channel 30 on Sept. 19. What began as part of the TV station’s Friday Morning Football segment previewing Exeter’s game versus Madera South ended up being a story about Kyle’s Challenge.
Reed said the telecast inspired students to take the challenge to a new level, with students coming back to school over the following weekend to decorate windows with pink ribbons, “K’s for Kyle” and “P4K,” meaning Pray For Kyle and tie pink ribbons on every fence post, pillar and pole on campus. Many students shaved their heads into Mohawks and died them pink to show their solidarity for Kyle.
The parade of pink on TV, newspapers and social media spawned similar support on other high school campuses. On Sept. 25, VTEC (Visalia Technical Education Center) students wore pink to school and Tulare Western’s volleyball team wore pink bows in their hair for that night’s game against the Monarchs. On Sept. 26, all three Tulare high schools wore pink clothing to their Friday night games. At halftime of Exeter’s away game against Mission Oak, the Hawks announcer asked the crowd to take a moment of silence for Kyle. Players at Woodlake, CVC and Farmersville wore pink socks and bracelets during their games. Farmersville High School’s marquee even read #TeamKyle30 for the Twitter account set up by Kyle’s classmates.
Principal Mayo broke the news of Kyle’s death to the students during a special rally on Sept. 24. Mayo said the rally was not only a chance for students to grieve but also to celebrate Kyle’s memory.
Shortly after hearing the news, four of Kyle’s closest friends – juniors Abraham Hernandez, Bryce Hurick, Noah Longoria and Corbin Kehrberg – all shaved off the pink Mohawks they had donned just a few weeks earlier.
“He was always joking around,” Kehrberg said. “He had a great sense of humor and he never let the cancer get to him. He was always positive and never seemed depressed.”
Hurick said he and Kyle have been best friends since kindergarten. He said he will remember playing alongside Kyle during a middle school basketball tournament in Lindsay three years ago. He said Kyle was an excellent outside shooter who loved being part of the team.
“He brought the entire Valley together with the goal of fighting cancer,” Bryce said. “Now everyone is on Team Kyle.”
Cuts For Kyle
On Oct. 29, a month after his passing, Team Kyle topped $12,000 in donations.
“Reaching [Kyle’s] goal was the most rewarding part of the experience,” said Gianni Allstot, who ran the Team Kyle account on Twitter.
The mark was celebrated with pink colored Mohawks for EUHS Counselor Margie Reed, Band Director Kirk Clague, Athletic Director Michael Powell, and Principal Robert Mayo.
“I lost my mom to cancer, and I was so mad because it took her so fast,” Clague said. “I did this because I want to help and I have a pretty well known position in the public, so I’m glad I could help.”
Mayo was willing to join his fellow administrators regardless of his position at the school.
“I wanted to do this Mohawk challenge regardless of the fact that I’m the Principal. I wanted this to be more than support, I wanted it to be a symbol with a purpose,” Mayo said.
Powell said he was pleased by the outpouring of support not only by the town but by the students in school.
“It’s all for a good cause and to see our kids come together it’s just a dream and $12,000 is really something to keep working for,” Powell said.
Exeter student Danica Todd said it was impressive to see how far the administration was willing to go for its students, and more specifically Team Kyle.
“I think that the Mohawks are a symbol of how we all came together and how far our administration is willing to go for this cause,” Danica said. “We are a small school and this event shows how a small school can really come together.”
The support of the town and other communities in the area have not gone unnoticed by the Stutsman family. Madison Morales, Kyle’s cousin and a junior at EUHS, called Kyle her “first best friend.” She said his diagnosis in eighth grade was heartbreaking.
“It was hard to accept the fact that he was no longer a kid with a small group of friends, but someone that the whole community knew because of such a bad situation,” she said. “Through his almost three-year battle he had a tremendous amount of support from everyone. While this was a little overwhelming for myself and my family at the time, it was great to watch the entire community and Exeter high school come together to support just one person.”
After shattering their initial goal of $10,000, Team Kyle has now set their sights on doubling that amount for the Exeter Relay For Life. As of press time, Team Kyle had raised $16,500. The largest single donation came from Kirkman’s VIP Pizza earlier this year. On Jan. 28, owner Kevin Kirkman presented Team Kyle with a check for $1,000. The donation matched every dollar raised (and then a little more) by the Exeter FFA’s annual Coat Drive held in Kyle’s honor.
“The kids are really excited about the donation,” said EUHS Counselor Margie Reed during the check presentation. “It means so much to them and the staff.”
And they aren’t stopping until the Closing Ceremonies at this year’s Relay For Life on May 17. EUHS senior McKinley Kavadas said Cindy Blackmon, activities director at the high school, started a “Spirit Chain” fund-raiser last month. Students purchase a strip of colored paper that is taped as a link in a paper chain. Each link is 25 cents or five for $1 and is a competition between the classes. Each class has their own color of links, pink for the juniors, as Kyle was a junior, blue for seniors, orange for freshman and yellow for sophomores. The chains were featured on this week’s ESN (Exeter Student News), EUHS’ student-produced broadcast on YouTube.com.
Anyone interested in donating to Team Kyle should contact Exeter Union High School at 559-592-2127. To donate, go to www.relayforlife.org/exeterca and click “Teams” and then “Team Kyle.” Checks may be made payable to the American Cancer Society attention of Team Kyle and dropped off at the EUHS office, 505 Rocky Hill Dr., Exeter, CA 93221.
“This is an amazing tribute to Kyle,” said his father Ken Stutsman last fall. “These things really help you look back on how great of a kid Kyle was. You can’t put a value on a small town, and small town support.”