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Tri-Valley Hero: Sarah Banholzer, Be strong and give back happiness

Courage award honors Pleasanton teen focused on giving to others amid her own cancer battle

Sarah Banholzer (center, sitting) organized another swimathon fundraiser earlier this year, despite battling a recurrence of cancer. (Photo by Chuck Deckert)

Sarah Banholzer, 16, celebrates milestones in her life that would give many pause. After completing 2-1/2 years of treatments for acute lymphoblastic leukemia diagnosed at age 4, she had a party.

"I got to take the steroids that made me feel awful and crush them with a hammer," Sarah recalled with a laugh. "I was so over those medicines -- it was a nice way to celebrate."

Her family also held a party when she was five years in remission, and at 10 years, they vacationed in Hawaii.

Then a year ago, a cyst removed from her forehead revealed lymphoma, although scans showed it had mostly been removed with the surgery.

"We are still not sure if it is a relapse or something completely different," Sarah said.

She again started treatments at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland, but she found something about the experience to enjoy.

"It was so awesome -- I got to see people I remembered from 11 years ago," she said.

Sarah was able to begin her junior year at Amador Valley High on schedule after working all summer to make up for the school she missed. She is now in the maintenance stage of treatment, taking oral chemo every day and going to the hospital every month for IV chemo and a lumbar puncture.

After her initial lengthy hospitalization, young Sarah knew she wanted to do something to help the other kids in Children's Hospital. When she was 10, she was inspired by a Christmas ornament made of recycled magazines at the Smithsonian Gift Shop, and she went to work to create her own.

Her parents Teri and John Banholzer joined in the endeavor and they created more than 250 ornaments, which Sarah sold, along with hot cocoa, on a weekend in December in front of their St. Mary Street home. With the more than $1,000 raised, she went shopping, filling three carts with toys to bring to the children. The next year she sold 450 cards.

In 2014, Sarah decided to up the ante on fundraising and hold a swimathon in the spring. When Sarah was 8, she had joined the Pleasanton Valley Swim Club, which her mother Teri cites as her first "normal" activity after years of life revolving around medical treatments, so a swimathon seemed the natural fundraiser.

Sarah dubbed the event the "Be Strong and Give Back Happiness Swimathon," a phrase she coined for a school assignment to choose six words to describe herself. She has now held five swimathons, raising more than $50,000.

Sarah meets with people from the hospital's Child Life Department to decide where the swimathon money should be spent.

"We bought all the equipment for the hospital variety show that is streamed on their TVs once a week, and we also bought pill kits for once the kids go home so they have their pills all set up," she said. "We bought mats for babies' rooms for them to crawl on. And medical play dolls and play kits so, for instance, when they get a port put on their chest, they can use the doll to see what is going to happen to them."

Sarah also continues the holiday crafts tradition, but instead of cards she and her friends craft birdhouses and planters.

"That money goes toward gifts for kids who have to be in the hospital over Christmas," she said. "Last year we made 40 planters and 20 birdhouses."

Sarah also has started a Make-A-Wish Foundation chapter at Amador. Its members meet monthly to organize fundraisers to grant a sick child's wish, which costs $10,000.

"I was 5 when I got my wish," Sarah said, recalling a very fun trip to Disneyland with her family, where they were treated like royalty and escorted to the front of the lines. "Honestly, I could never go back to Disneyland because of how awesome an experience it was."

She is also on the Make-A-Wish Greater Bay Area youth board, which meets once a month to share ideas.

"All of these kids are so passionate about it," she said. "Most of us have had a wish or are siblings of wish kids."

The Tri-Valley Heroes award for Courage is not Sarah's first recognition. One year she led the Light the Night Walk in Walnut Creek, held by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society to raise funds for research and to honor those touched by cancer.

Now Sarah is enjoying school and activities with family and friends, and slowly working her way back to participation on the volleyball team. She plans another celebration when she finishes her treatments next year.

"I think I'll be even more excited this time," she said.

Hero FYI

* When Sarah was in the hospital and at home for treatments last year, she used gift cards to order a ukulele and taught herself to play with YouTube videos. She says playing the ukulele is uplifting.

* She swam 40 laps in each of her swimathons, even last spring when she was undergoing treatments, and says the swimathons are "super fun."

* She has been a pescaterian for about a year and a half, after being inspired when taking a vacation with family members who are vegans.

* Despite trying for years, Sarah says she still cannot whistle -- nor could she roll her R's in Spanish class.

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