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Southlake Style

Caroline The Champ

Jan 02, 2019 10:03AM ● By Ashley Madonna
As Old Union Elementary School kindergartener Caroline Duncan flips through her picture book from last year’s Children’s Cancer Fund annual fashion show and gala, she stops to comment on the dress she’s rocking down the runway.
 
Fashioned in her favorite color, blue, Caroline, age 5, smiles remembering her day of dress up. While others might first notice the people walking her down the runway, Cowboys legend Tony Romo and his wife Candice Crawford, the five-year-old talks fondly about the people who did her hair and makeup backstage.
 
Caroline’s mom, Julie, once asked Caroline if she knew the famous couple escorting her down the runway last year. To which she replied, “Mrs. Candice and some other guy.” After clarifying it was, in fact, Tony Romo, Julie asked her if she knew what the man was known for. Caroline said, “He’s a DJ, mommy.”
 
She’s not wrong. At the 2018 gala, where Tony Romo acted as an honorary DJ, local celebrities came together to put their fame aside and let the day’s models shine. Dressed to the nines in their chosen looks, these kids were able to lose themselves while strutting their stuff, which is why the night is so special. And why Caroline is already looking forward to helping out this April for the 2019 event.
 
Caroline’s Story
 
Caroline Duncan was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (A.L.L.) on her third birthday. After Julie and her husband continuously saw their daughter spike high fevers, lose the color out of her cheeks and eventually lose the ability to stand, they kept taking her to the doctor just hoping for an answer.
 
“I just had a feeling that something’s not right,” Julie says. “It was crazy scary.”
 
After running a blood test on their third visit to the pediatrician, the couple took Caroline to Children’s Medical Center Dallas where a bone marrow biopsy confirmed her diagnosis. It was the start of their health battle full of tests, steroids, chemotherapy and a whole lot of prayer.
 
“We never thought we weren’t going to get through it,” Dan says.
 
“And that’s because of our strong faith,” Julie comments.
 
For the first 30 days after diagnosis, Caroline was admitted into the hospital. With Julie, Dan and their eldest Camdyn still living in Southlake, the couple spent most of their time living in their daughter’s hospital room. Dan would make do on the pullout couch and Julie would nestle alongside her youngest daughter to share her bed.
 
“I just didn’t want to let her go,” Julie says.
 
Camdyn often stayed with Julie’s parents who live in Hurst, but she, of course, would come to Dallas to visit her baby sister. After saying their hellos, the two girls would run off to the playroom complete with a mini kitchen, a welcomed hospital amenity thanks to the Children’s Cancer Fund (CCF).
 
The nonprofit invests in projects like these through their project called Childlife that helps improve patients spirits and their stay while in the hospital. Caroline’s most treasured resource provided by CCF came in every day on four paws. Blair, a golden retriever therapy dog, came in to sit on Caroline’s bed and gave her comfort while her body continued to fight against cancer.
 
“Childlife is basically what brought her peace and joy,” Julie says.
 
After those first 30 days, Caroline was able to come home to Southlake – still while being closely monitored by both her parents and with weekly visits back to Children’s to see her doctor. While she did have a few stints back in the hospital whenever she broke a fever, Caroline was slowly able to transition back into her favorite activities.
 
She attended, cheer and gymnastics classes, which acted as physical therapy for building up her motor skills. She might have only been up and standing for 10 minutes, but her teachers welcomed her back with open arms.
 
Low energy was just one of the side effects of her medications – on top of her hair falling out and an increased appetite, but the Duncans worked their way back to a new level of normal.
 
“She lost that entire year,” Julie says. “That entire year of her being three was gone.”
But it was the small stuff that gave Julie and Dan hope. Caroline loved twirling her hair, so losing it during treatment hit her hard.
 
“When we could do her first ponytail. That was a big day,” Julie says. “We had a spa party for her sister, and I tried to put her hair up. It wasn’t very big, but getting her ponytail back was something.”
 
Going To The Gala
 
On April 4, 2018, Caroline finished her chemotherapy by taking her final dose, which came as a huge relief to both Julie and Dan.
 
“It was pretty much hour to hour until we finished up with that last pill,” Dan says. “Then we could take it at least day by day for the next year and a half.”
 
The family celebrated the milestone by packing up the kids and taking their first family vacation since diagnosis up to Beaver Creek. Caroline had never seen the snow and spent the week learning how to ski and taking in the sights.
 
“That was my favorite day,” Caroline says about the vacation. “We [slid] down the mountain and had cookies and hot chocolate.”
 
The family knows the importance of celebrating those high points, but they also understand they are in a position where they can make a difference. While they were balancing two kids – one of which who was battling cancer – the Duncans felt an urge to give back.
After seeing the Children’s Cancer Fund give their daughter such relief, they knew it was important to not only participate in their annual gala but also find new ways to make an impact.
 
“You’ve never been more humbled than when you’re at a children’s hospital,” Dan reflects. “It’s the most sad…it’s really hard. A lot of people think we have it bad. And then we look around the hospital and think we have it so easy. We’re pretty fortunate and a lot of people aren’t. No matter your marital status, anything, [cancer] is indiscriminative. There are just a lot of people who have a really hard time.”
 
The Duncans mention they always wanted to give back, but life got in the way before Caroline’s diagnosis. It wasn’t until their own situation changed that they realized they had the time. They just needed to make it a priority.
 
“We kind of wanted to help before she got sick, but we never got around to it,” Dan says.
 
And their extended Southlake family helped them: OUES held a snack drive that kids in the hospital could turn to after their tests. Julie partnered with one of Caroline’s friend’s moms to hold a Kendra Scott trunk show. Even the girls got involved by opening a lemonade stand where they gave the money back to children in need.
 
But Caroline took more of a spotlight roll in giving back at the 2018 Children’s Fund Gala. After applying and being chosen as a model, she quickly became a face for the gala.
 
“Everything in Caroline’s world must sparkle because she sparkles inside and out,” Children’s Cancer Fund Executive Director Jennifer Arthur says.
 
“Her eyes just twinkle and she has the outfits and the shoes to match. She has gone through that and she has come out the other side and she is still smiling.”
 
Before the event, Caroline attended several promotional events where she bonded with the day’s other models and was able to share the gala’s message with the public.
 
When the 2018 gala came, Caroline was dropped off at the event hours before it started so her dress up could begin. Caroline says her favorite part of the day was eating all of the candy the nonprofit provided backstage, but she talks with a smile about getting her hair, nails and makeup done before taking the runway.
 
“It’s an opportunity to have cancer survivors walk the runway. It’s about their journey to survival,” Jennifer says. “We have all those celebrities come, but they are the ones who turn over their celebrity status and hand it over to the kids. That’s what makes our event so incredible.”
 
At the end of the event, all of the model alumni take the stage to be a part of the grand finale. This year, Caroline will return to be a part of that celebration.
 
“The backstage and the grand finale have turned into a reunion of sorts,” Jennifer says. “These kids have grown up together. They have celebrated remission together. They love coming back each year.”
 
Julie is also a part of the CCF Leadership Committee, so she works on the other side to help the nonprofit do all it can to help local children.
 
“That’s always a joy to see when families turn around and say ‘What can we do for you? How can we serve you?’” Jennifer says. “[Julie] is pouring her support and her backing into Children’s Cancer Fund.”
 
Caroline’s Impact

The Duncans also work with close friend and local Southlake author of “The Angel Gift,” Brooke Andrews. The book acts as a comfort tool to help show children their angel is always watching over them. In each box comes a board book, a handmade stuffed angel and a note to personalize the gift to its recipient.
 
For every 10 that Brooke sells, she gives one book to Caroline to donate to another child battling cancer. She gives them out when she goes to her monthly doctor appointments.
 
“The Duncans are doing good through their trauma,” Brooke says. “We paired up and though it was the perfect combination.”
 
Caroline knows the importance of giving back, but she’s also a little girl who loves lunchtime at school because it’s when she can talk to all of her best friends, an extensive list that takes a few minutes to go through. But it’s Julie and Dan that stress it takes a village to support children suffering from cancer.
 
“Don’t be like us,” Dan says. "Don’t wait until it happens to you to get involved. Because there is so much good still to be had.”
 
Until then, Caroline’s days will be filled with dress up and playing with her sister. Every once in a while, Julie says Caroline will be recognized by a Southlake resident who asks her how she is doing or she sees a local student sporting an “OUES is for Caroline” T-shirt, and she is filled with gratitude for her community and the support they have shown.
 
“One day, she will realize the impact she’s made on so many people,” Julie says. “It’s so humbling. She was a champ.”