Cynthia Palermo, a Rotarian and HIP Ally who lives in Dryden, Ontario, has shared her story about her efforts to help a former student in need.
Serena was just sixteen when she lost her mother Barb Kenter on July 4, 2017. In late January of that year, Barb, an Anishinaabe woman and resident of Thunder Bay, was hit in the stomach with a trailer hitch thrown from a passing vehicle. Barb was walking home with her sister when the attack happened. Many Canadians believe that racism killed Barb and the assault is an example of the “horrendous rates of premature death suffered by Indigenous and racialized people in Thunder Bay.”
The man who threw the hitch, Brayden Bushby, has been charged with manslaughter and stood trial last month in Thunder Bay. The judge is expected to deliver her verdict next week on December 14.
Serena, who friends described in a Maclean’s article as, “never [crying]…tough as nails—a straight-A student with a head for science and math and dreams of becoming a doctor,” is now facing a leukemia diagnosis. This fall, Serena moved to Ottawa for treatment, where she has already had a bone marrow transplant and will undergo further treatment.
Cynthia, an artist and teacher of law and civics, got to know Serena while she attended high school in Dryden. Cynthia felt compelled to help and decided to donate one of her pieces called “Force of Nature,” a 30×40 inch acrylic painting that took 50 hours to create, for auction. The hope is that the proceeds would help Serena cover expenses while she is forced to live away from home in order to access cancer treatment. Cynthia also invited other local artists to join her and donate some of their art to support the project.
What started out as a local fundraising effort has grown much bigger with the video Cynthia made to raise awareness about Serena’s situation having reached close to 17,000 views and over fifty works of art arriving from artists and artisans across Canada. Cynthia is now in the process of developing a catalogue of photos and descriptions of every artwork that has been donated for the upcoming auction.
It’s a lot of work, so what motivated this single mother to start the Helping Serena Project? It started with Cynthia’s desire to pay it forward and combat racism with love exemplified by the artwork and the generosity of artists who have donated their work. Cynthia is an avid human rights advocate and she is passionate about fighting prejudice – what she describes as an emotional commitment to hatred – and its ugliness.
Cynthia notes that Serena is a private young woman but hopes that the money the auction raises will help remove some of the stress and worry about the day-to-day costs of living in Ottawa and out of pocket expenses related to her treatment, so Serena can focus all her energy on healing and getting better.