2016-06-03 / Front Page

Community welcomes superhero home

Sea Road School fifth-grader is determined to subdue rare cancer
By Duke Harrington Staff Writer


Nicholas Brierley of Kennebunk — flanked, clockwise from left, by his sister Julia, father Justus, mother Nicole, and brother Joey — tries out a flavor of ice cream he invented during a May 27 visit to the Arundel Ice Cream Shop, which will have the new creation on hand June 11, at the Nicholas Strikes Back 5K at Sea Road School, to raise funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where he spent a year receiving treatment for a brain tumor. (Courtesy photo) Nicholas Brierley of Kennebunk — flanked, clockwise from left, by his sister Julia, father Justus, mother Nicole, and brother Joey — tries out a flavor of ice cream he invented during a May 27 visit to the Arundel Ice Cream Shop, which will have the new creation on hand June 11, at the Nicholas Strikes Back 5K at Sea Road School, to raise funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where he spent a year receiving treatment for a brain tumor. (Courtesy photo) KENNEBUNK — As the school year winds to a close, one fifth-grader is returning to class after more than a year’s absence. Now his family is hoping you’ll join them in fighting the disease that nearly claimed his life.

On Saturday, June 11, the Sea Road School community will stage the Nicholas Strikes Back 5K to celebrate the return of Nicholas Brierley and to raise funds for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, where he received his treatment.


Soon after the Brierley family left for St. Jude Children’s Hospital with their son, Nicholas, Sea Road School sprang into action. Students conducted a “penny way,” raising $4,500 in loose change to help defray the Brierleys’ living expenses while in Memphis – enough that a Brinks armored truck had to come to cart it all away. (Courtesy photo) Soon after the Brierley family left for St. Jude Children’s Hospital with their son, Nicholas, Sea Road School sprang into action. Students conducted a “penny way,” raising $4,500 in loose change to help defray the Brierleys’ living expenses while in Memphis – enough that a Brinks armored truck had to come to cart it all away. (Courtesy photo) The event – which kicks off at the Sea Road School with a fun run at 9:30 a.m., then the 5K at 10 a.m. – was co-organized by Sarah Emerson, a runner from Westbrook with seven marathons under her belt in addition to a host of even longer runs and elevation races, who entered last year’s annual Memphis Marathon in Nicholas’ honor.

And yet, as of last week, even with all that’s been involved in staging the upcoming race, Emerson had yet to meet Nicholas or his family, due to the Brierleys being away for his treatments for more than a year. But knowing the family in need was not the motivating factor, Emerson says, only that there was a local need to be met.

“When I heard there was a boy from Kennebunk who was receiving treatment at St. Jude, there was no question in my mind that my return to the marathon in December would include supporting Nick and his family,” she said. “Then, I had an idea to put on a small grassroots 5K to help raise some money for St. Jude and it has turned into so much more.”

As luck would have it, Nicholas’ teacher, Jan Gibson, also entered the half-marathon in Memphis.

“When he left to go to St. Jude’s in April 2015, I looked to see what I could do to help him out and saw the race was taking registrations in May, I was like, yup, I’m going to do it. I’m going to race,” she recalled.

Unlike Emerson, Gibson was not an experienced runner – the December 2015 half marathon was her first distance run – and she describes her result with a beaming smile. “I finished!” she said.

Still, Emerson and Gibson connected as a result, organizing the June 5K and even helping to make October’s Mt. Desert Island Marathon a benefit for St. Jude in Nicholas’ name.

“The whole thing is going to be dedicated to Nick, so this upcoming 5K is sort of a precursor to that bigger race, which will be a St. Jude-affiliated race with thousands of runners from all over the country,” Gibson said.

As his teacher in both Grades 4 and 5, Gibson has had the chance to interact with Nicholas, while Emerson has not. There’s a reason, she says, why he has so endeared himself to the Sea Road Community, even though he left for treatment of a brain tumor – a rare form of medulloblastoma – less than seven months after his family moved to Kennebunk from Connecticut.

“How can I describe him, without crying?” Gibson said in a recent interview, actually tearing up and having to collect herself before she could go on. “What an inspiration. I mean, having to fight that fight at his age, and do it in such a way that he has always remained positive and never taken for granted the time he had with his family. And even though he had only been in Kennebunk for a short time and had just met all of these students, he fit right into the class. He’s just a great kid. Every person in this school knows who Nick is, and has been thinking about him, even though most of them have never met him.”

“We’ve been very open with them about the process, and his mom, Nicole Brierley, has been really great about documenting everything he’s been gong through, on the Nicholas Fights Back Facebook page,” Gibson said.

Nicholas’ mother says she has been “blown away” by how the students, her neighbors, and the community have stepped up to help a family that had been in Kennebunk at the time for such a short period.

“My husband Justus is a carpenter and he vacationed in Maine with his family when he was young,” she said. “He always wanted to move to Maine and when we finally decided the time was right to do it, it all just fell together. Our home we’re in in Kennebunk is the only one we even looked at. Now, I guess it’s clear why things worked out the way they did. Everybody here has been really, really great.”

Just months after moving to Kennebunk, Nicholas began to complain of headaches. Originally diagnosed with migraines, he tried valiantly, like the superheroes he admired, to tough it out. But as the headaches got worse, his mother insisted on a CT scan. Within days, he was under the knife, to have a tumor removed from his brain.

Less then a week later, the family was off to St. Jude, to take part in a yearlong series of treatments.

“We did a lot a research for where to get treated,” Nicole Brierley explained. “When his pathology came back, the specific tumor that he had, St. Jude was offering a clinical trial. So they could offer us a different treatment then what the normal child’s oncology group could offer.”

No sooner had the Brierleys left than Sea Road School sprang into action. The students conducted a “penny way,” raising $4,500 in loose change to help defray the Brierleys’ living expenses while in Memphis – enough that a Brinks armored truck had to come to cart it all away. Then another $1,200 was raised to support Gibson’s half-marathon run, as part of a Superhero Day, in which students and staffers at the school all dressed up as Nick’s favorite superheroes.

“It’s been overwhelming,” Gibson says. “I can’t express how proud I am to be a part of this community, just because of the way people have come out of the woodwork to help.”

And while school officials, neighbors and even complete strangers like Emerson have stepped up to aid her family, Nicole Brierley says she is most appreciative of Nicholas’ classmates.

“The way the kids in his class, they’ve just been so wonderful,” she said, suppressing a tear. “I just can’t express how it feels, because it’s just so remarkable. They’ve been as absolutely wonderful as can be. I’m completely overwhelmed. The kids in his class, they seem to really care. They’ve really wanted to help him, to stay in contract, to get to know him more. They’ve sent him cards and care packages, they’ve face-timed. It’s like they’ve known him all their lives. No one has made them, they’ve wanted to do this in their hearts.”

Nicole Brierley says she also “can’t wait” to finally meet Emerson.

“It’s just inspirational what she’s done,” she said.

But for her part, Emerson said she’s just as inspired by Nicholas.

“Running can be a selfish thing at times, always chasing new personal records and longer distances – it just feels right to me to support the people right here in our own community,” she said. “This is my way of giving back and it helps to put perspective in life and when things get hard I often think of Nick, his family and the rest of the kids at St. Jude, they help me to fight through it.

“Planning this race has been such an amazing experience and I am thrilled to be able to do this,” Emerson said.

Registration of the Nicholas Fights Back 5K starts at 8:30 a.m. on the day of the race at the school. Plans include a band, a dunk tank and other attractions to enhance the “welcome home” intent of the event for those not actually entered in the run. And while money raised from the 5K will go to help St. Jude, a benefit dinner will be held the night before the race to help the Brierleys defer expenses and lost income from the last year spent in Memphis.

“There’s been no payment required for Nick’s treatment and we’re so grateful for that,” Nicole Brierley says, “but St. Jude’s only pays to house families of four, and we’re five. So, if we wanted to go together, we needed to get additional housing. We sort of had to make a big commitment – to either do this as a family, or to separate. We just thought it would be better for Nicholas, no matter how hard it was going to be to kind of uproot everybody, to stay together as a family unit. And the community really helped us out with that.”

“This is a way to support an organization that, sadly, you’ll never know if you might need it yourself one day for someone in your family,” Gibson says. “

Run for St. Jude

What: Nicholas Strikes Back 5K
Where: Sea Road School, Kennebunk
When: Saturday, June 11; Fun run, 9:30
a.m.; 5K, 10 a.m.

Information: Online registration closes Sunday, June 5. Visit at https://g2racereg.webconnex.com/strikeback5k16. Same-day registration will be available. ... After the 5K, a pasta dinner fundraiser is planned for 4 to 6:30 p.m. at Sea Road School. For more information, visit the NIcholas Strikes Back Facebook page.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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