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Madison school honors teacher, assistant who died of cancer

BEREA — The losses at Silver Creek Elementary School were still fresh on the minds of students, the faculty and the staff Thursday.

Nearly every child who filled the auditorium had been a student of kindergarten teacher Dianne Duerson or teacher's assistant Debbie Van Winkle, who both died of cancer within the past six months.

The school gathered for an assembly Thursday morning to honor "Ms. Debbie" and "Mrs. Duerson," as they were known to the children they taught.

"We felt like we needed to let everybody know how important they were to us," Silver Creek principal Lisa Waller said.

Van Winkle died of lung cancer in August before school started. Duerson died of breast cancer in December.

Students at Silver Creek, as well as other schools in Madison County, were encouraged to wear pink Thursday to raise awareness of breast cancer. Students who wore shirts, headbands and scarves in various shades of pink filled the gym floor and the hard plastic bleachers. Many of them also had pink ribbons pinned to their chests or a pink paw stamped on their cheeks. The shirts of Silver Creek faculty and staff members were also a pale pink with white writing, the closest they could get to the clear that represents lung cancer. Two angels flew across the backs of their shirts.

Madison County schools also collected donations throughout the day for Hospice of the Bluegrass, which cared for Van Winkle and Duerson.

Teachers cried and students fidgeted as a host of colleagues sang songs and shared stories about the two women. They recalled their patience and kindness, Van Winkle's infectious laugh and Duerson's welcoming voice.

Former Silver Creek principal Sylvia Powell encouraged everyone to close their eyes during the assembly and remember the former teachers who taught them all how to live, love and laugh.

"The world is truly a better place because they lived," she said.

Waller said the ceremony allowed the school to begin enjoying the memories of two of their own. But "it's so hard," she said. "There's nothing that takes it away."