It’s often said that a person or group’s true character shines through in the face of adversity, and that has proved to be the case when its comes to the DuBois Area School District family and DuBois community as a whole in recent months.
The DuBois School District and surrounding community — like all others in the state — were already braced for what proved to be a tough and unprecedented start to a new school year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, things have proven to be even tougher and emotional at DAHS as the school and community have had to rally around two of its own — senior Lakin Smith and Athletic Director Chuck Ferra — to help lift up their families and the community as whole during some very trying times for each.
Smith was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma back in July and has been undergoing treatment since then, which has forced her to miss her senior year of volleyball.
Ferra suffered a massive heart attack the night of Oct. 9 shortly after the conclusion of the Beavers home football game against Moniteau and is still in the early stages of recovery in the hospital at UPMC Altoona.
Both tragedies sent shock waves through the school district and community and members of both were quick to step up and help both families any way they could — whether that support be emotionally or financially through various fundraisers like t-shirts and yard sign campaigns or donations by complete strangers.
The Brookville volleyball team made a $2,000 donation to Smith’s family, while DuBois and Brockway teamed up to do a 50-50 Friday night at the football game between the two schools, with all proceeds going to the Ferra Family. That effort was spearheaded by Brockway Superintendent Jeff Vizza, a former administrator at DuBois.
You name it, someone has done it or tried to do it an effort to help the current situations for both families be a little less worrisome. It also has led to two different battle cries among those supporters — “Her Fight is ... Our Fight” for Smith and “Win the Day,” which is a favorite saying by Ferra.
“It’s very, very impressive to see how everyone has pulled together,” said Chuck Pasternak, who is the Dean of Students at DuBois Area High School. “God we have a lot of good people around here. There is no doubt about that. Unfortunately, it seems like in life it takes events like these to make you realize how many good-hearted people surround us and care about each other.
“You take Lakin. She is just a delightful young lady and is an excellent student. Lakin always has a smile on her face and is the kind of kid of who would do anything to help anybody and any time.
“To see her have to go through this, it is very difficult being someone that young. But, it’s been very impressive to see how the kids and adults have pulled together — whether it be providing meals for the family or gas cards help them get to her treatments. People have been so generous and want to help.”
Ferra’s heart attack hit Pasternak particularly hard, as the two were high school teammates at DuBois and have been life-long friends.
“Chuck is one of my one of my absolute best friends, and I’ve known him forever,” said Pasternak. “The suddenness with Chuck is what got everybody. One if the things I think about all the time is how he and I stood and watched the second half that Moniteau game together. We were laughing and joking and telling stories and enjoying the game. There was no indication at all he was about to have this episode.
“So, when I got that phone call about an hour after the game, it was shocking. Then a little while later when I spoke to Dory (Ferra’s wife) I found out more details. It’s been very, very tough for me personally. But, it’s just not me, but our whole school and community because Chuck is such a huge part of both. He’s such a good guy and another person who will do anything to lend a hand or help people.
“To see him and his family have to go through this, it’s a feeling of helplessness. I talk to Dory often and we text back and forth. We want to do so much to just help them. When you say to Dory what do you guys need, her answer is always, ‘We just need prayers.’ So we just need a lot of prayers and positive thoughts.
“I think he’s definitely moving in the right direction, but let’s face it. We live in a society where we all are use to instant gratification and instant information, and this isn’t going as fast anyone of us would like.
“Chuck bleeds red, black and white. He loves DuBois and been a lifer here. Nobody has more pride in our community and our school than him. Now it’s time for us to give that love back to him and his family and show that love and appreciation and help will him back to health as quickly as possible.”
DuBois Superintendent Wendy Benton echoed Pasternak’s sentiments.
“One of the greatest attributes of our community is our ability to unite during times of hardship,” said Benton. “When one of us is hurting, it affects us all. We immediately begin to empathize with the individual and his or her family, draw connections to our own personal experiences and begin planning on how to best meet the needs of the family. We are fortunate to live in an area that embraces a sense of family within the community.
“Chuck Ferra and Lakin Smith are well known and highly respected within our community. When it comes to students, Chuck Ferra is one of the most influential members of our team. He leads our athletic department with a student-centered approach is exemplifies the qualities and characteristics that we want to instill in our youth.
“Lakin Smith is a beautiful young lady inside and out. If you meet her once, you will remember for forever. She exemplifies the mission of our school district and is known for her contagious smile and compassionate heart.
“When you present yourself at such a high standard as Chuck and Lakin do, and your passion in life is to make a difference in the lives of others, no one thinks twice about stepping up to surround them with care and love. I believe the compassion and strength of our community provides the support necessary for Lakin and Chuck to continue to fight for a full recovery.
“I am beyond proud of the outpouring of generosity and compassion from our staff, students and community as a whole. From heartfelt thoughts and prayers to friendship bracelets and fundraisers, these are the initiatives and we are the people that set our community apart from the others. This is how we make a difference in DuBois.”
The special thing happening at DuBois — and this isn’t the first time the school has stepped up to help a fellow student or staff member in similar circumstances — is the fact the students are involved as much as the adults.
All the sports teams have done something to show support for both Smith and Ferra. The volleyball team in particular had a highly emotional Senior Night last Thursday that not only saw Smith attend and be honored but also play her first and only point of the season in a sweep against Punxsutawney.
Former assistant coach Craig Avery had special decals made for the court sporting Smith’s name, number and volleyball with the “Her Fight is ... Our Fight” motto and “We Stand Together As A Team.” The team also wore shirts supporting Smith and held a large “Win the Day” for Ferra during the national anthem.
Although rivals on the court, Punxsy’s six seniors also presented Smith with a care package they had been working on for her for weeks according to Lady Beavers volleyball coach Jason Gustafson.
And just this Wednesday, the DuBois boys soccer — unbeknownst to anyone at the school — made a trip to UPMC Altoona to show their support for Chuck and Dory Ferra as they had a game in Altoona that evening. The team made special arrangements with UPMC Altoona, which allowed the team to stand on the hospital’s life-flight helipad — which is outside Ferra’s hospital room — and hold up signs for Dory Ferra to see.
“People are going the extra mile,” said Pasternak. “That took a lot of arranging for hospital officials and for our soccer team to reach out and want to do that unbeknownst to us, it’s really special. We got those pictures last night (Wednesday), and it brings tears to your eyes.
“The girls soccer team made a video message for the Ferras, and cross country had several signs at its most recent meet. Every team is really showing their support for both of them.”
The plight of both Smith and Ferra has also resonated with Gustafson, who has not only coached Smith for many years but went to high school around the same time as Ferra and also worked alongside him when it comes to the high school team.
“Speaking of Chuck’s situation, it hits home for lots of people,” said Gustafson. “On a personal level, I was a high school freshman when Chuck and his friends (and wife) were mostly HS seniors and/or upperclassmen. I wasn’t friends with Chuck at that time. However, I’ve got to know him much better over the past few years, as a coach in the district.
“While volleyball wasn’t a sport he had much, if any, involvement in at all, he has been very supportive of our efforts to build a successful program. It’s a passion of mine that Chuck has recognized and supported year after year in many different ways. I appreciate him for what he has allowed us to do with our team and the support and guidance he has provided our staff and players.
“Recently, on a trip to Hollidaysburg, I had a conversation with their AD, Homer DeLattre. Surprisingly, he mentioned knowing Chuck since high school and college as athletes, and expressed concern for his health and hoped to get to visit him at the hospital.
“As a husband, father of two boys (like Chuck) and son, his recent health scare truly makes you take a step back. It’s nothing more than a blink of an eye that changes things. I am thankful for the opportunity to work with Chuck through some challenging times in our program and look forward to his support in the future. I wish continued good news through his health fight and a speedy recovery to both Chuck and his family.
“In addition to Chuck’s current health struggle, we’ve also witnessed a direct impact to our program through one of our own players. Lakin Smith, as many people now know, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at the very start of our season, and the last one of her career. I truly believe the outpouring of love and support for Lakin, since the first word of her diagnosis, has spilled over into support for Chuck. It’s many of the same people in the community who have reached out to help in some way.
“As for Lakin, I will never forget talking on the phone to her mom (Kelly) about her diagnosis. Kelly is a tough lady. I shared stories of the challenges my children faced at birth, trips to Children’s Hospital and what navigating that experience was like for us. In the meantime, she was ultra-optimistic about what was ahead for Lakin and their family. I could tell she held her head up the whole time, despite a few tears here and there.
“She was a tremendous support for our volleyball program for the past several years. She’s unselfish with her time and always there for anything we needed. She does the same for several sports her kids participate in, as I understand. And so, now it’s time for others to help their family.
“Sports brings people together in many ways. In our community, we are all battling this pandemic that has pushed everyone apart ... even when no one wants to be. But, the battle these two people are fighting has brought not only the immediate community together, but it has brought out the best in the local communities as well.”