Getting back to “the kids.” It’s perhaps what motivates popular Sayville High School monitor Donna Papa the most in her fight against cancer.
“I have to get better, and I have to get strong,” said Papa, who was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer in June and has been away from work since September. “I have to get back to work. I want to be with the kids.”
For as long as Papa, 61, has worked in Sayville schools — 24 years — it’s been about the kids. From her hallway desk near the gym in the high school, she’s mentored them, admonished them, amused them and many times, saved them.
Now, the Sayville community is doing everything it can to pay her back. On Jan. 24, from 6-10 p.m., her co-workers, friends and family will host “Donna’s Day” at the VFW hall in Sayville. The fundraiser, being held to help offset medical costs associated with Papa’s care, will include a cash bar and a chance auction that will feature donated items.
On the day before the event, Papa is scheduled to undergo exploratory surgery at Mount Sinai hospital in Manhattan to more accurately determine the origin of her cancer. After seven rounds of chemotherapy, the original diagnosis that the disease was originating in her ovaries has come into question.
“They’re going to find out where the cancer is and how many tumors there are,” said Papa’s husband Tony, with whom she has four adult children and seven grandkids. “We’re very hopeful. This (surgeon) has given us the best news we’ve had in a long time. We have a doctor with a plan.”
For months, Tony Papa, 61, who owns T.D.K. Heating & Irrigation in Sayville, has provided the bulk of his wife’s home care. It’s been another love-filled chapter in a 39-year marriage that has featured plenty of joy, together with its fair share of pain.
Donna Papa was diagnosed with cancer in an emergency room on the day before Father’s Day when a catscan revealed a mass on her parineal liner. She was at the hospital because antibiotics were not effectively treating her latest UTI infection, which she gets often due to treatment she receives for multiple sclerosis.
Twenty-four years ago, when his wife was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Tony Papa quit his job at an oil company and started his own business, in order to have flexibility in his schedule to take his wife to the doctors and on other errands. Within months, Donna Papa accepted a full-time position with health benefits at Sayville schools.
The timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous, Tony Papa said. His new business began to thrive and Donna Papa began to make her mark on Sayville youths.
“Working in the high school is the best thing for Donna. She loves the kids, and the kids love her,” said Tony Papa, who has driven his wife to work the last eight years because she is wheelchair-bound. “The social worker would get pissed off because the kids would talk to Donna more than they would talk to her.
“The amount of kids that Donna has helped and has pushed through school is amazing,” he added.
What makes Donna Papa so unique is that she “doesn’t pull any punches,” said Marie Amella-Pesko, a Sayville English teacher who has known Donna Papa for more than 20 years.
“She’s funny. She’s honest. She’s as real as it gets,” Amella-Pesko said. “Her relationship with students is the thing that sets her apart from everybody else.”
Amello-Pesko said her friend has an uncanny ability to be simultaneously funny and “no-nonsense.”
“She’ll call students out if they’re doing something wrong, but it’s always with a sense of humor,” she said. “It’s the hallmark of her personality. Everyone adores her.”
At the high school, against a wall in the hallway by the gym, Donna Papa’s desk sits empty.
“It’s there, waiting for her to come back,” Tony Papa said. “It’s amazing how well-loved she is by the staff, faculty and kids.”
Donna Papa said the best part of her job — the part she so longs to get back to — is “just being there for the kids.”
“My work goes beyond being a monitor. You have to have a heart,” she said. “I want them to know that there’s somebody that’s there for them — if they need a coat, money for lunch or motivation.”
At home, her phone lights up now and then with texts from students. “Fight this!” and “I know you can get better” are examples of the motivating messages. They fill Donna Papa with adrenaline.
“I know that they love me as much as I love them,” she said. “I’ve had parents come over to me and say, ‘You can’t leave here until my child graduates.’ I know I’m doing something right.
“I know I’m not a psychiatrist. I know I’m not a social worker. I know I’m just Donna — and Donna makes a difference.”