‘Donnie Strong’: Students raise funds for classmate

A first-year master’s of speech-language-hearing student was recently diagnosed with cancer.

Donnie Thomas, a first-year master’s of speech-language-hearing student, was diagnosed with classical Hodgkin’s nodular sclerosis in January. Several people from Temple helped raise funds for him. | COURTESY / DONNIE THOMAS

Donnie Thomas has had a lifelong passion for helping people.

As a child, he watched his aunt have a stroke and was tasked with helping her regain her ability to speak. It’s something the first-year master’s of speech-language-hearing student has held on to today, especially while helping students as a resident coordinator with University Housing and Residential Life.

Thomas worked as a resident assistant in Johnson Hall and 1940 Residence Hall. At Morgan Hall, he was a resident coordinator, a graduate position which assists in the management of the residential life program.

Now, Thomas is learning to receive assistance himself. In January, Thomas, 22, was diagnosed with classical Hodgkin’s nodular sclerosis, a type of lymphoma that involves abnormally large cells and tends to start at the lymph nodes.

His aunt began a Facebook fundraiser called Hope for Donnie earlier this month to pay for the medical costs of treatment. Just two weeks after its creation, Temple students, staff, family members and friends already raised more than $8,800 out of the $10,000 goal, as of Monday.

The page is filled with sentiments like “Donnie Strong” and “Stay strong, Donnie! Your friends at Temple are thinking of you!”

“Sicknesses really are a group effort,” said Thomas, who received his undergraduate degree in speech-language-hearing from Temple in 2017. “You can’t get through them alone.”

Thomas received his official diagnosis on Jan. 15. Before this, he suffered from frequent illnesses, all with inconsistent symptoms until one morning he could barely breathe and was rushed to the hospital.

Thomas decided to take a leave of absence from Temple and moved home to the Poconos to live with his mother, JoAnne Picarello, as he undergoes rounds of chemotherapy once every two weeks.

He said, at first, his doctors were worried about his lack of response to treatment and the abnormally large tumor in his chest, which forced him to spend a few weeks moving back and forth between his house and the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Northeast Philadelphia. Now, he is stabilized and has adopted a consistent treatment routine.

As medical costs began to mount, Picarello’s sister, Caroline Wilson, approached her to ask if she could start a fundraiser on Facebook to help pay for the treatment.

“Caroline said to me, ‘You do so much for everybody, please let us be able to help you,’” said Picarello, who has done charity work for cancer treatment research in the past.

Some donations came from hometown community members returning the favor of his mother’s frequent charity work, friends, co-workers and even people the family had never met.

One of the largest contributions came from Thomas’s fellow speech-language-hearing students and professors at Temple. A friend of Thomas’s and a first year master’s of speech-language-hearing student, Sonali Shah, raised $1,000 in contributions from other students in the program.

“Donnie is a really important member of our class,” Shah said. “He was sort of everyone’s favorite person. He really left a big hole in the program after leaving, and all of us just miss him.”

After gathering the money on their own, the group later added it to the larger Facebook fundraiser.

“It’s just a great feeling to know that everyone is so supportive, especially because they still reach out to me to this day to say that they miss me and it’s not the same without me,” Thomas said.

Thomas spent most of his time outside of school working as a resident coordinator, but he said he’s lucky to have a job he’s so passionate about.

He said he first got involved in “res life” during his freshman year, and since then it’s remained a large part of his Temple experience. Even off the clock, Thomas said he was very involved with the students in his building and fellow staff, who have always served as a support system for him. They’d often hang out and go out to dinner together, he said.

Picarello said she loved picking Thomas up at his residence hall and hearing about how much her son loved the school and his community of fellow students, teachers and even administrators.

Thomas hopes to return to Temple next semester. After he receives his master’s degree, he plans to work with adults who lost their ability to speak as well as children who struggle with communication and speech.

In the meantime, both Thomas and Picarello said they feel truly grateful for the emotional support and the knowledge that they have a whole community behind them.

“I know that if I didn’t have the strong support like I do, I wouldn’t be doing as well as I am today,” Thomas said.

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