Students at Pine Ridge High School in Deltona, Fla. are supporting their favorite math instructor, Charlie Lundell, in every way they can after his diagnosis of cancer in the liver, lungs and throat, with lesions in his brain.
His students have rallied to make sure paying health bills are the least of his concerns in the recovery process. He is also expecting twins in June with his wife, who is a teacher at a neighboring school.
“We just want him to get better and come back to school,” the school’s junior class sponsor Brenda Burgett, 55, told PEOPLE on Wednesday. “So the community stood behind us and it’s taken on a life of its own. Let’s let Mr. Lundell concentrate on this and not worry about bills or babies on the way.”
Burgett and the others involved in raising money collected $2,000 at the end of January with the help of their version of Dancing with the Stars called Dancing with the Teachers – an activity they did last year as well, to help support prom costs.
“Kids choreograph and pick the song and they’re paired up with a teacher and have two weeks to teach them a routine,” Burgett explained. “Then the two of them perform it together. Mr. Lundell was one of the teachers who was set to do it this year.”
But three weeks before the lighthearted competition, Burgett and the rest of Pine Ridge received a rude awakening as they learned Lundell had to back out of the competition due to the return of his cancer.
“He had it two years ago,” Burgett said. “He had surgery and did whatever he needed to do and everyone thought it was kicked. We thought he was doing well.”
Helping Their Teacher
At that point, the students and remaining staff at the close-knit school decided to devote their efforts to helping the ailing teacher.
“I’ve never seen a group or community of people rally around someone so quickly,” junior class vice president Sierra D’Errico, 17, told PEOPLE.
“He isn’t just a wonderful teacher, he is a wonderful friend and inspiration. I respect him so much for starting every day with a smile no matter what he’s going through. He always puts everyone before himself, and it was about time that we put him first.”
D’Errico, who “wasn’t fortunate enough” to have the highly respected educator as her own, still luckily got the chance to connect with him.
“I did go to some of his lunch tutoring sessions,” she said. “[His door] was open to anybody who needed help in any math subject. I’ve gotten to know him through this whole process and it’s just heartbreaking to see the toll it has taken on his family.”
But things seem to be looking up for Lundell, who maintains a positive attitude despite his hurdles.
“I don’t think I ever saw him not look strong through this whole process,” D’Errico said. “I see pictures every day and a smile on his face. He’s laughing and joking.”
Added Burgett: “He’s getting around, but he’s not teaching. He has more than one day of treatment a week. He wasn’t able to come to Dancing with the Teachers. A couple weeks after that, we had a basketball fundraiser and he did come out to watch that. We had a diaper party here a couple of weeks ago for his wife. Both her and Charlie came here for that. He was feeling well enough to come.”
The efforts to help the beloved instructor don’t end with a dollar sign. Lundell is a huge fan of Guy Fieri, and his students and community members are campaigning on Facebook for him to meet the Food Network star.
Donations to Lundell can be arranged through members of the school, who can be contacted at 386-575-4195. Its mailing address is: Pine Ridge High School, 926 Howland Blvd., Deltona, Fla. 32738.