PEPPERELL — Olivia Perez is like any other 13-year-old.
The Nissitissit Middle Schooler is a Girl Scout that plays soccer and loves cats. She is a big Stranger Things (and Joe Keery) fan and — in her free time — her hobbies include Roblox, Minecraft and Pokémon.
She just also has cancer.
Back in June, a medulloblastoma — a malignant tumor and the most common type of cancerous brain tumor found in children — was found on Olivia Perez’s cerebellum. Now, faced with mounting treatment costs, the Pepperell Police Department, behind Police Chief David Scott, and the community at large have come together to support her and her family.
“The whole town has really rallied around her,” said Felecia Perez, Olivia Perez’s mother. “They’ve made everything so much easier on us, just to have people there when we need them has made a huge difference.”
“It’s been eye-opening,” she added of the Police Department. “They didn’t have to do anything for us, they could have just gone about their day and did their job and that would have been enough because they’re taking care of the community. But they have done so much more than that, they’ve gone so far out of their way for us — at this point, they feel like family.”
Felecia Perez first noticed trouble when her daughter began to slur her words. After a few incidents of fainting, she took Olivia Perez to the doctor.
While she was met with resistance at first, Felecia Perez managed to get her daughter in for an MRI. It was during the procedure that the doctors found the tumor.
“At first I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “The idea had never even crossed my mind, so when they told me they found a tumor, that Olivia had brain cancer, I was just at a loss.”
From there, Olivia Perez was quickly whisked into surgery. Doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital removed the tumor and, after a two-week stint at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, she began treatment.
Felecia Perez said her daughter was unphased by the news.
“(Olivia Perez) already knew something was wrong and I didn’t want to scare her any more than she already was, so we didn’t even tell her that she had cancer until after the tumor had been removed,” Felecia Perez said. “Of course, when I told her, it just bounced right off her — she said ‘Oh, OK, that’s fine.’”
Olivia Perez proved resilient in more ways than one: doctors explained to Felecia Perez that, after surgery, it would likely be “months” before Olivia Perez could walk or speak coherently again — so, of course, the tenacious teenager “shot up as if nothing had ever happened” during her time at Spaulding.
Chemotherapy and regular check-ins with doctors followed six weeks of radiation treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital. In that time, a GoFundMe was set up, while Cops for Kids with Cancer made a sizeable, $5,000 donation to the family and the Pepperell Police Department decided to pitch in as well.
Scott, in the midst of his own battle with colorectal cancer, said he nor the department could pass up the opportunity to help someone in the community. After a November fundraiser for the Boston Red Sox and Massachusetts General Hospital Home Base Program, the department turned their efforts toward the Perez family, donating funds in order to “bend the rules” in regard to the department’s facial hair policy, and asked the community to do the same.
“When I brought it up, I couldn’t even get the words out of my mouth before officers were saying ‘yes, of course,’” Scott said. “We have a great group (at the police department), people just willing to do whatever they can to help this community and I think that sort of connection is really important.”
Given his own experiences, Scott praised Olivia Perez for her strength and determination amidst a difficult battle for anyone, let alone a 13-year-old girl. Felecia Perez agreed.
“As a patient myself, I get what you go through, what your family might go through — it’s not easy,” Scott said. “But watching Olivia, I don’t know how she does it.”
“I haven’t heard her complain yet,” he added with a laugh. “But, seriously, she’s strong, she’s resilient — I can certainly say, at her age, I would never have been able to deal with something like this the way she has,” he said.
“The unknown of everything, waking up every day and just not knowing what could happen, I can barely handle it now — I never would have been able to when I was her age,” Felecia Perez said. “And I think that just shows how strong she’s been through this whole thing.”
As of Monday, Dec. 12, Scott said the Police Department, with help from other first responders around town, had raised “well over $1,000” for the cause. The GoFundMe, meanwhile, has managed to raise more than $12,000 for the family.
Scott said the generosity was a “long-standing” characteristic of the Pepperell community, while Felecia Perez heaped appreciation on anyone and everyone that has helped her or Olivia Perez throughout the entire saga. With a wink, a point and a smile, Olivia Perez said everyone that had given to their cause was “awesome” and that she could not thank the community enough.
“What else can I say other than thank you?” Olivia Perez said. “It’s just awesome to see how much money the community has managed to give, how much they’ve been able to help and we just really appreciate every bit of it.”
“That money has made everything so much easier for us, I don’t have to worry about bills or whatever else and I can just focus on Olivia,” Felecia Perez said. “Honestly, we’ve just been so lucky to have the community behind us — people (in Pepperell) are just so nice, so giving, so caring, I can’t thank them enough.”
“That’s just the way Pepperell is, how it always has been,” Scott said. “People around here, we help each other out however we can.”
Amidst her third cycle of chemotherapy, Olivia Perez has a lot of treatment left in front of her. That said, despite her fear of needles, Felecia Perez said she was “gung-ho” and ready to take on whatever the doctors — or her cancer — might throw at her.
While she has missed time here and there amidst treatment, Olivia Perez has returned to school on a semi-regular basis. While it was “awkward” at first, she said her friends and classmates have come around and while, at first, she was resistant to the idea, she has slowly leaned on them for support.
“Kids are weird, sometimes they just stare,” Olivia Perez said. “That can be pretty awkward but, for the most part, everyone has treated me like a normal kid, which is nice.”
“(Olivia) has always been very independent, like she didn’t even want us to tell people (about her diagnosis),” Felecia Perez said. “She was ready to fight this completely alone — and I think that says a lot about her at her age — but she’s come around and it’s been nice to see her friends stand with her through this.
While she called her classes “boring,” Olivia Perez said she looked forward to getting back into school full-time. She also said she hoped to get back on the soccer field “as soon as possible” and that she hoped to use the money raised to help fund her dream of owning seven cats; while her mother said Olivia Perez “could use a vacation” after her treatment was all said and done, she stressed that none of the money would be put towards purchasing cats.
If you want to help Olivia Perez and her family, you can donate online at gofundme.com/f/help-olivia-with-her-courageous-battle.