Community rallies for ailing teacher

Stephanie Bellenger teaches her third-grade class at Fort Mill Elementary School earlier this month. Bellenger needs a kidney transplant to prevent complete kidney failure.
Stephanie Bellenger teaches her third-grade class at Fort Mill Elementary School earlier this month. Bellenger needs a kidney transplant to prevent complete kidney failure.

FORT MILL -- Community members, church- goers and shop owners are teaming up to obtain a kidney transplant for 24-year-old Stephanie Bellenger and so far they've raised almost a third of what she needs.

The Fort Mill Elementary School third-grade teacher is battling chronic kidney disease, an illness that slowly diminishes renal function over time.

Bellenger was diagnosed at the age of 22; three weeks after the surgeon who removed her appendix noticed scarring around her kidneys. A kidney specialist later discovered that she had Stage IV Chronic Kidney Disease.

Two years later, Bellenger's right kidney has decreased from being 40 percent effective to just 20 percent; her left kidney is non-functioning. A transplant is needed to prevent complete kidney failure.

"It has the same stages as cancer," she said. "The fifth stage is the end stage and that is renal failure; most people need dialysis or a kidney transplant when they get to that stage."

Thanks to Bellenger's sister, and "best friend," she already has a perfect-match live donor. She just needs to raise money for the surgery.

Bellenger was placed on the transplant wait list in March, but her insurance will cover 80 percent of the transplant costs; the Anderson University graduate has three years to raise $50,000 to cover the last 20 percent.

"I will have a lot of follow-up visits after the transplant, and I will be on medication for the rest of my life," Bellenger said.

Springing into action

When Leslie Rogers, a friend and fellow church member, learned of Bellenger's situation, she began a committee dedicated to raising money for the surgery.

"It burdened me, what their family was going through," Rogers said. "I just felt like I was being told to just get busy and raise money and do what needed to be done."

A Rock-A-Thon at a Cracker Barrel restaurant during the summer raised $13,000. A former student of Bellenger's put on a bake sale.

So far, Team Bellenger has raised about $16,000. The next event is a golf tournament Saturday at Pinetuck Golf Club in Rock Hill. Registration begins at 11:30 a.m. and the tournament starts at 1 p.m.; cost to play is $45. The public is invited.

"We would be pleasantly surprised if we got about $5,000 from the golf tournament," Rogers said. "We're not expecting it to be much more than that."

Bellenger's school also is helping to raise money for the cause. Each year the school picks a charity and every time a teacher wears jeans to school they donate $1 to that fund. This year, Principal Karen Helms chose Bellenger's fund.

"We will likely do a number of such activities over the course of the next couple of years," Helms said via e-mail. "This keeps her cause in front of the faculty and staff as opposed to having one major event."

All proceeds go to the South-Atlantic Kidney Transplant Fund in honor of Bellenger. The fund keeps only 5 percent of the money raised, a substantial amount less than other transplant assistance funds, Rogers said.

In the meantime, Bellenger has to watch her diet and health.

"It's hard when my group of friends want to go eat at places like McDonald's or Burger King, and I'm not really supposed to eat there," she said.

From now on, Bellenger said, she must stick to low-sodium tacos and homemade fried rice with a tiny bit of soy sauce to keep her blood pressure down.

Bellenger relies on her passion for teaching to stay positive.

"My job is my therapy," she said. "I love my students. They really help me keep my spirits up because they tell me how great of a teacher I am, and when they get what I'm teaching, it just makes me feel so good."

For information about Bellenger and her fundraisers, visit www.caringbridge.org/visit/ stephaniebellenger.