Mary Lyn Loeffler, a first-grade teacher at St. Columbkille School in Papillion, is seen with the marble jar as it begins to fill. The marbles represent prayers for her as she battles cancer. COURTESTY PHOTO

Living Mercy

Marbles, prayers pile up for teacher diagnosed with cancer

Every school day students get a chance to clank a colorful marble into a jar in Mrs. Loeffler’s first-grade classroom at St. Columbkille School in Papillion.

The teacher gives students a marble for the jar every time they do something that makes her happy: for promptness both in turning in homework and arriving for class; for being quiet when asked; for particularly good answers to questions or knowledge of a subject.

“We don’t ever take marbles out of the jar if they break the rules,” Loeffler said. “This marble jar is only for positive behaviors.”

When the marble jar is full, the first-graders have a party to reward all the good deeds. Magically, the jar always fills up at the same time as a jar in the other first-grade classroom next door. So it’s always one big party involving two classrooms.

Former students remember their marble parties for years. Loeffler (known to nonstudents as Mary Lyn) and her fellow first-grade teacher, Terri English, began having marble jars in their classrooms soon after they both started teaching first grade at St. Columbkille 33 years ago.

As part of a newer tradition, former students get one final marble party when they’re about to graduate from high school. And they typically flock back for a chance to reunite with grade school friends and their former teachers.

Now – after many, many marble parties – Loeffler’s students, former students, school families, her colleagues and friends are accumulating marbles for the beloved teacher. Each one dropped into a giant jar at St. Columbkille represents a prayer for Loeffler, who was recently diagnosed with first-stage breast cancer, her second go-around with the disease after being free of it for 17 years.

She recently began chemotherapy and, at least initially, adjusted to the procedure well.

The prayers started about the same time, and the marbles and petitions have been piling up to more than 2,000.

English, Loeffler’s longtime co-worker, chalked up the initial tolerance of the chemotherapy to the “power of prayer.”

Loeffler is surrounded by a few of her supporters before the marbles started adding up at St. Columbkille School. COURTESY PHOTO

The prayer initiative has surprised Loeffler. The first day after a post on the school’s Facebook site, a hundred people sent her emails of support.

“I heard from kids who I had eons ago,” the teacher said. “I heard from families who have moved away. It was just so humbling to hear that all these people are praying for me, and it really makes me feel less and less afraid because I’m surrounded by this shield of prayers.”

“I’ve been getting cards in the mail,” she said, “and people have signed me up for these different societies that say Masses.”

“It’s just amazing. All the comfort and support.”

One former student and a fellow cancer patient sent prayers and a message: “We’re going to fight this together.”

Another former student wrote that he felt like “jumping on the table and doing the Macarena” for Loeffler,  a reference to the dance celebrations students would do when they reached reading goals, with classmates dancing around them.

“That was always to celebrate our great reading,” Loeffler said.

School parent Kelsey Saltz – who’s had children taught by Loeffler, including a current student – came up with the idea for the marble prayer initiative.

Saltz and her family benefited from a prayer network, which included the St. Columbkille community, when they had a sick child. They saw how God answered those prayers and wanted to share the way they were blessed.

“We wanted something to inspire Mrs. Loeffler,” Saltz said.

The response has been touching, the teacher said. “I mean, I’m crying as I’m reading all these things that people have said,” especially when former students tell her about her impact on them.

“I feel the comfort that it brings knowing that everyone is praying for you,” Loeffler said. “I feel that comfort sealed around me, like you’re under an umbrella of all of these prayers.

“I definitely feel the absence of fear. I first thought ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to be horrible.’ I definitely feel the comfort … and the assurance.”

“I just surrender myself to God because Jesus is going to take care of it all,” she said, “and these people are assuring me of that because they know the same thing.”

The veteran teacher said she’s thankful “that God put all these people in my life throughout these years and that He’s enabled me to touch their hearts. They’re touching my heart now. … I guess I never knew how many people I touched in their lives who are now touching me back.”

At the school, students of all ages have added their prayers for Loeffler. Their prayers alone nearly filled the marble jar, English said.

The students are excited to help.

“When I’m walking through the halls,” Loeffler said, ‘the kids will say, ‘Did you see all the prayers?’”

“Yeah, isn’t it great?” she responds.

She said she’s been blessed by the St. Columbkille community, including “some of the most wonderful pastors and associates. We have been truly blessed.”

More prayers are welcomed, her supporters said. 


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