2016-01-22 / Front Page

Senior creating change through awareness

Student, teacher team to create fund for graduates touched by cancer
By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

South Portland High School senior Britney Morton and Scott Keysor, a special education teacher at the school, plan to start a scholarship for graduates whose lives have been touched by cancer. Keysor is a cancer survivor, while Morton has been fundraising to combat the disease since it claimed her father, when she was 11 years old. (Duke Harrington photo) South Portland High School senior Britney Morton and Scott Keysor, a special education teacher at the school, plan to start a scholarship for graduates whose lives have been touched by cancer. Keysor is a cancer survivor, while Morton has been fundraising to combat the disease since it claimed her father, when she was 11 years old. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — When Britney Morton was 11 years old, she lost her father to kidney cancer.

He had been the light of her life, a jokester who was always there to make her laugh or pick her up when she was feeling down.

“He was something else,” the 18-year-old said recently, during an interview at South Portland High School. “He was pretty funny. He was a funny guy. That’s the only word that comes to my mind.”

Tom Morton traveled New England teaching others how to operate wastewater treatment plants. A man who worked as hard as he laughed, he tended to ignore his own aches and pains, focusing instead on drawing a smile from others. By the time he was diagnosed with cancer, he was already at Stage 4. He was 55 when he died in 2009.

Britney might have been forgiven had she given into grief at her loss, but her reaction was just the opposite.

Rather than dwell on her father’s death, she turned her sadness into action, in hopes of helping others.

A longtime member of an American Cancer Society Relay for Life team founded by her dance teacher, who battled cancer three times, as well as Perform for a Cure, a local music and dance extravaganza produced to help fight the disease, Britney was no stranger to helping others.

But with her father’s death, she kicked the giving into hyper-drive. That first year she formed her own Relay team dubbed Team Tom in honor of her father. She recruited enough runners to form three separate teams and that first year raised $13,000. Since then, Britney has raised $52,000 for cancer research through Relay for Life. Among other awards for her philanthropy, in 2014 Britney was given the Sandra C. Larabee Volunteer Values Award, the highest recognition handed out by the New England division of the American Cancer Society. She remains the youngest person ever given the award.

In all, including annual gift-giving at Christmas time to families hit financially by cancer and unable to afford to buy for their children, Britney’s mother, Lisa Morton, estimates her daughter has raised nearly $100,000 since beginning her crusade.

“It’s the kind of thing you don’t expect to see from your child,” Lisa Morton said. “I mean, if you had asked me when she was, say, 6, I never would have imagined her doing all this.”

But more than the giving, Lisa Morton said, it’s the strength of character her daughter has shown which touches her heart, whether standing in front of thousands of people at the Relay for Life to tell her story, or comforting a grieving father, reduced to tears and claiming to be unworthy of the holiday gifts she’s delivered for his children.

“I can’t even begin to tell you how proud I am of her,” Lisa Morton said.

Britney is more reserved, less willing to sound her own horn.

“It was pretty hard when my dad died, but I just felt like I should try and take that situation and turn it into something better,” she said. “I just felt that I needed to do something to help other people. I feel like if I can help other kids not have to go through it, it will be better for them.”

Now, Britney is gearing up for her biggest fundraising drive yet, the last big push before she graduates high school this June. Perhaps ironically, that effort began when Lisa Morton was reaching for a way to fund Britney’s postsecondary education.

After calling the high school to find out what types of scholarships might be available, she was referred to special education teacher Scott Keysor.

A 10-year veteran of SPHS, Keysor created a $5,000 scholarship fund last year, to be awarded to a graduate suffering from a loss, like the blow delivered by cancer. For Keysor, it was a personal gift, given that, at the time, he was fighting Stage 2 colon cancer, undergoing regular doses of radiation and chemotherapy, not to mention three surgeries.

Today he’s come though the battle on the winning side.

“My doctor and oncologist don’t use the word ‘remission.’ And they don’t use ‘cured,’” He said. “What they say is, ‘There is no evidence of disease.’”

That was the good news. The bad news was that his scholarship was a one-and-done gift.

“Last year was kind of a one-year thing,” he said. “The reason I did it was that I was the senior class adviser, so I had a connection to that group, and in addition to my own history, we had some loss in that class from cancer.”

But Keyson had an idea, given her gift for fundraising, maybe he and Britney could team up to create a perpetual scholarship.

“She’s a real kind-hearted kid,” Keysor said of Britney. “Cancer is not something where someone dies from it and you go on. It’s always with you. And she understands that. But she’s gone so far beyond that. Here I put together $5,000 last year, but she’s raised nearly $100,000 in seven years. That’s pretty amazing. So, we want to see if we can create a new award moving forward.”

Britney and Keysor hope to raise $10,000 at least, enough to create an initial scholarship award this year and to generate interest income which, when added to future donations, can fund additional awards for years to come.

“When you are touched by cancer, it’s forever,” Keysor said. “Speaking as a cancer survivor, it’s always going to be in the back of my mind. So, like Britney, I’m the kind of person who wants to give back if I can.”

Plans are still in the very early stages, but Britney and Keysor expect to focus on fundraising, leaving the actual awarding of any scholarships to the SPHS Dollars for Scholars Committee. Their award, likely to be named the Morton Memorial Award, will probably be given to students from families touched by cancer, based on an essay application, as Keysor’s award was last year.

For Britney, she knows the winner, especially in years to come, will likely have little idea where the money came from, or the man the award is named for, but that’s not important, she said.

“I think a lot of people will be amazed to get the award,” she said. “And, yeah, a lot of people won’t know what it’s all about, but I’ll always know, and I think my dad would be happy to be helping a bunch of kids.

“I think it will be really cool,” she added. “I’ve worked really hard since middle school to make a difference, and this is definitely going to do that for someone.”

“Something is going to be available this year,” Keysor said. “It’s just a question of how much money we can raise and how many students we can help.”

Lisa Morton says she won’t be at all surprised to see Britney reach her $10,000 goal, or even more. To date, South Portlanders have never failed to step up when asked, she said.

“Britney’s had a lot of inspiring kids and inspiring adults to serve as role models,” she said. “The community around here is just awesome. It’s like, why wouldn’t you want to give back, or return the favor?”

Keysor has had the same experience.

“The cancer journey is such a personal one,” he said. “I chose to be public and in doing so I received so much support from the staff here at South Portland High School and the community in general. It felt like every day there were thousands of people rooting for me.”

But even if they don’t raise thousands of dollars, Britney and Keysor hope to raise awareness of cancer, the many ways to fight it and the people locally with families ravaged by it, who could use a helping hand, or at least a friendly one.

That, Britney said, is the meaning behind her motto, the one that guided her for the past seven years — “If you can’t create awareness, you can’t create change.”

To find out how to donate to the Morton Memorial Scholarship, contact Keysor by emailing keysorsc@spsd.org.

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