NAUGATUCK — By the time the guest of honor arrived at Naugatuck High School late June 13 a thunderstorm had passed leaving a dry, albeit muggy, night in its wake.
The new synthetic field and track complex was alive with activity. Those walking on the track and playing games on the field came to a stand still though when world languages teacher Rebecca Cruz arrived at 11:30 p.m. The event — dubbed Cruz Night — was held in her honor, and everyone in attendance flocked to the beloved teacher.
The 47-year-old Cruz, who lives in Ansonia with her husband and two children, is battling stage four pancreatic cancer. She has been on medical leave for the past couple months.
Cruz Night was organized by the Naugatuck High DECA program to support Cruz and raise money for her family. By the time the event was set to start, nearly $33,000 had been raised including about $7,000 June 13 alone and $11,000 from business sponsors throughout the community. When it was all said and done the total climbed to about $40,000.
“I’m not sure if we’re really surprised about it, more excited,” said DECA officer and NHS junior Mikayla Healy about the support for the event.
Healy along with fellow DECA officer and junior Christopher Yacavone led the effort to organize Cruz Night. Both had Cruz as a teacher.
“She is just such as great person,” said Yacavone, who added they were thrilled to be able to do something to give back to Cruz.
Cruz may have been surprised over the level of support shown, as hundreds of students, former students and faculty turned out for the all-night affair. She certainly was overwhelmed.
“I’m just humbled, overwhelmed and grateful for all the support,” said an awestruck Cruz as it approached 1 a.m. June 14 and she just finished participating in a special midnight glow segment. “They’ve always been a family, and that’s how they’re treating me.”
The centerpiece of the evening was a 12-hour walk-a-thon to raise money. Thunderstorms threatened to derail the plans as the sky opened up just before the walk was to start at 8 p.m. The storm forced participants into the school’s gymnasium, where walking took a back seat to tug of war matches, soccer circles and limbo lines.
“Even with the rain no one seems to be put out by it,” Healy said.
Marketing teacher and DECA advisor Tim Reilly said it’s difficult to organize such a large event at the end of the school year, when students and staff are kind of burnt out and ready for summer. The students pulled it off though.
“I’m very proud of the kids, the faculty, everybody, the businesses,” Reilly said. “It’s just been a labor of love.”
Many students and faculty did their part to make the event a success. Reilly pointed out senior Shawna Wheeler, who raised almost $1,000 herself, and the NHS National Honor Society.
The society, which has about 96 members, issued a challenge to the rest of the school, explained Matthew Rosen, a guidance counselor and co-advisor of society.
The society set a goal of raising $10,000. If any other group raised more, the society would conduct a fundraiser for whatever that group wanted.
Rosen said the challenge gave the students something to shoot for and got faculty members stopping him in the hallways to talk about it.
“It got people talking about the event for sure,” Rosen said.
The society ended up raising $7,750, but no other group topped that total.
“That put a little charge into things,” said Reilly about the challenge.
Cruz received top billing, but the event also raised money for the family of former Naugatuck High paraprofessional Donna Dietz.
Faculty at the school recently learned that Dietz was diagnosed with bone cancer. Dietz passed away June 16 at the age of 54.
Once Dietz’s illness became known, Reilly said, it was decided the net proceeds from Cruz Night will be distributed to the Cruz and Dietz families.
Dietz is the mother of three daughters. Mary and Amy graduated from Naugatuck High in 2011 and 2013 respectively. Lori is a freshman at the school. Amy and Lori came out last Friday for Cruz Night.
Amy said the event shows that the school and community really care and understand the pain people go through.
Lori said the support means a lot. She particularly thanked her English teacher, Jennifer Brennan, who told Reilly about the family’s situation.
Amy said her mother cried when they told her what the school was doing and would love the fact that everyone came together to give.
“It does mean a lot, and it’s very special to me,” Amy said.
As he sat in classroom, the rain falling outside, Reilly reflected on what the students at Naugatuck High can do when they put their minds to it. He said the students can create magic.
“I believe we can do anything in this school,” he said.