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Bridget Kelley, 8, was just hoping for a return to normalcy on her first day back in elementary school after a 15-month absence for cancer treatments and a stem cell transplant.
Her classmates and their parents made sure the third-grader's return on Jan. 2 was anything but normal, thanks to a special greeting the Kelley family will never forget.
As Bridget walked to Merrymount Elementary School in Quincy, Massachusetts, she was met by hundreds of students, parents, teachers and police officers holding colorful signs welcoming her back to school.
"It was almost overwhelming,'' Bridget's mother, Megan Kelley, told TODAY. "She felt so special and so welcomed after such a long and hard road."
"Her classmates wanted to let her know, 'You were out for 15 months, but we absolutely did not forget about you,'' Kristin Healy, a school parent who helped organize the gathering, told TODAY.
They stood out in 4-degree weather to make sure Bridget knew how excited they were for her return.
"There were parents crying,'' Healy said. "It was amazing."
The heartwarming scene, which included officers from the town, county and state police, had Kelley, 40, and her husband, Dan, 42, almost worried that it would be too much for Bridget.
"When we saw all the people we thought she could be overwhelmed and embarrassed,'' Kelley said. "But she raised her arms like 'Victory!' and she soaked it in. She totally went with it, and that made it that much more exciting."
Bridget was just beginning the second grade when she was diagnosed in September 2016 with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a type of blood cancer. She spent 88 days in the Boston Children's hospital undergoing chemotherapy and surgeries.
Her condition required a stem cell transplant in March when she didn't go into remission right away, her mother said.
Bridget's initial diagnosis came after she went to get a swollen tonsil removed, and an MRI revealed it was something much worse.
"We were completely blindsided,'' Kelley said. "We just thought she was getting her tonsil out."
Bridget's 3-year-old sister, Shannon, was the donor for her stem cell transplant. She could only have limited contact with people following the surgery because she was on medication suppressing her immune system.
Bridget had her own bedroom, a special diet and limited contact with friends that had to take place outside the house.
"She had to live in isolation,'' Kelley said. "We couldn't have anybody in the house. She understood that the cancer was serious, but it was almost more devastating that she wasn't able to go to school or soccer or dance or birthday parties."
While Bridget was out of school, families in the community arranged to regularly bring meals to the Kelleys and raised money for the family and cancer research. Bridget was able to get tutoring during her time in the hospital so she could graduate to third grade and remain with her classmates.
Healy, whose oldest son, Seamus, 8, is in Bridget's class, organized a Facebook forum to help plan the special return for the little girl.
"I invited 50 people, and by the end of the day it was 150 along with the police,'' Healy said. "Everyone was just super excited for Bridget after she had a really tough battle."
Healy handed out more than 200 signs and 150 hand warmers to the large crowd welcoming her back.
Ironically, two days after Bridget's return, there was no school for two days thanks to a massive snowstorm.
"We had anxiety about sending her back to school because we were so trained to avoid germs, but it was also such a relief,'' Kelley said. "It's like we're finally on the upswing now that she's allowed to come back."
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