BLACKSBURG, Va. -- When Erin Ridley, an assistant coach for the Virginia Tech women’s soccer team, heard about Nicole Dennion’s story, she knew it was something the Hokies would want to help with, even if Dennion played for another school.
Dennion had just finished up a standout sophomore season as a member of the Elon women’s soccer team that saw her tally 15 goals and five assists en route to being named the Southern Conference Player of the Year.
Around mid-February, Dennion noticed a bump on the side of her rib cage, which led her to the hospital for a series of x-rays and a CAT scan. The scan revealed a tumor, and ultimately a biopsy that officially diagnosed a cancer called Ewing's Sarcoma. Ewing's Sarcoma is a cancer of the bone, or soft tissue surrounding the bone, that is often found in children and young adults.
Over the course of the next couple weeks, Dennion withdrew from spring classes at Elon and moved home to New Jersey, where she began treatment at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, roughly 45 minutes from her home. Almost immediately, the Elon women’s soccer program and Head Coach Chris Neal set up a fund in an effort to help offset the numerous costs surrounding her relocation and treatment.
“I heard about everything after talking to Coach Neal, who I knew from coaching in the SoCon,” Ridley said. “I thought it sounded like something the girls would love to help with, so I called up our seniors and they came up with some fantastic ideas.”
Among her first calls were rising seniors Jodie Zelenky and Ellie Zoepfl, who were both immediately on board with the idea and settled upon the idea of making food to sell for their initial effort.
“Erin sent us an email asking if we wanted to help raise money and reached out to us to see if we had ideas on how to do that,” Zelenky said. “We really wanted to get involved, so Ellie and I thought of the bake sale downtown.”
“We put together the bake sale in about 12 hours,” Zoepfl added. “We thought of the idea on Friday morning and then set everything up on Friday evening downtown.”
Armed only with hot dogs and mac n’ cheese, the Hokies set up shop on Main Street and raised more than $500 after just a single day.
Buoyed by their efforts and aware of Virginia Tech’s spirit of generosity, members of the team then went to their professors, asking permission both to tell Nicole’s story to their classes and give Hokies the opportunity to contribute.
“They kept bringing money in and we just kept counting it, bagging it and putting it in the shoebox we were using to store it,” Ridley said. “Because of how they collected it, it was all in these random increments: $5 bills, $1 bills--somebody put in eight one-dollar coins!”
The following weekend, the Hokies were scheduled to travel to Winston-Salem, N.C. to take part in the Southern Soccer Showcase, a club event that also featured a handful of college teams in the midst of their spring practice, where they hoped to present the money they had raised to members of the Elon women’s soccer program.
After just a few days of collecting money following the bake sale, the Hokies had raised an additional $400. After some last-minute collecting from members of the team, parents and other supporters, the Virginia Tech women’s soccer team presented the fund with a donation of $1,022, in honor of Nicole’s No. 22 jersey.
“I asked Coach Neal how he wanted the money, if he wanted a check or something similar, and he said to leave it like it was,” Ridley said. “He said that he thought it’d be really cool if she could just see how it all came together like that, little by little.”
While at the tournament, members of the Hokies also wrote Nicole’s nickname, Colie, on yellow ribbons that they, along with their opponents for the weekend, UNC and Pittsburgh, affixed to their cleats in an effort to garner awareness of Nicole’s fight.
“The girls had less than a week and a half to pull it all together,” Ridley said. “The whole goal was to raise some money and raise a lot of awareness before we went down to the tournament, where we could just throw our support behind her.”
As of Tuesday morning, the Kickin’ It For Colie! website showed funds totaling more than $35,000 from more than 425 people to help Nicole with her treatment and other expenses, as well as numerous messages in support of Nicole and her family.
“This really was a whole team effort and I really want to credit the leadership of our rising senior class--Jodie Zelenky, Ellie Zoepfl, Kelsey Loupee, Katie Yensen, Shannon Mayrose, and Danielle King--for taking on this project, as well as graduating seniors Kelly Conheeney and Ashley Manning,” Ridley said. “They really made it about taking care of someone in our soccer family and they showed a lot of character to rally Hokie Nation's support for Colie and to tell her story.”
The Hokies will be continuing their support into the coming months through a variety of projects. Links to complete information, as well as the fundraising site, can be found above.
“Cancer has impacted all of us in some way,” Ridley said. “We just wanted to show Colie that we’re thinking of her and we’re supporting her the whole way.”
--Photo taken by Dani Fink--
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