Mesa Student Carries Special Olympic Torch
Mesa Middle School rallies behind cancer survivor
FRANKTOWN – On Monday, Douglas County High School freshman gathered for their first day of school. Among them was a student that some might consider a hero. This summer, after overcoming cancer and the loss of one of his legs, Robert Burns walked triumphantly, carrying the Special Olympics torch as it traveled through Colorado on the way to the World Games.
“We mostly walked, because I couldn’t run. I had to be on crutches the whole time,” Burns explained.
Classmates, staff and administrators from Mesa Middle School, as well as police officers and deputies from the Castle Rock Police Department and Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, surrounded the glowing high school freshman as he led a segment of the Law Enforcement Torch Run through Franktown.
“It felt really nice. I liked holding the torch and walking with it. It was a great experience,” Burns said.
“I was proud of him,” said Robert’s mother, Allison Leix. “I was apprehensive about him being able to walk the whole way, because he was still recovering, but he did it. He went the whole way without stopping at all.”
Robert’s team was made up of about thirty people, who walked with him and encouraged him, as he made his way down Parker Road, with a smile on his face.
“He was surrounded by people who walked with him,” Leix said. “It was a very supportive experience.”
Eventually everyone on the team, including Mesa students with other disabilities, had the opportunity to carry the torch forward.
“It was heartwarming, just to see the look on their faces, the pride in every step they took, the smiles on their faces. It was amazing,” Mesa Special Education Teacher Mary Caricato said.
Burns’ bout with cancer came without warning last spring. His mom says he is just a normal kid with a quiet and thoughtful personality, who had something catastrophic come into his life.
“He has always been a kid that doesn’t get into any trouble,” Leix said.
Trouble, however, came to him. The athletic teen started to have trouble with his knee. At first, doctors thought that it was likely a sports injury. Eventually, however, a biopsy found that it was cancer that had ravaged his leg.
At the advice of doctors, Burns agreed to an unusual amputation, called rotationplasty.
“They took my knee out and then they took the bottom of my leg and turned it 180 degrees around and attached it to the other side of my leg,” Burns explained.
WATCH VIDEO: The Mayo Clinic explains rotationplasty procedure
“He doesn’t like it when people think he was born with it,” Leix added. “He wants people to understand that he was given this choice to make this decision to do this with his leg.”
While the past several months have been traumatic, Robert has kept a positive attitude—choosing to not dwell on the loss.
“I don’t put much thought into things,” Burns said.
He says he would encourage other kids facing a similar situation to go ahead with a life-saving amputation.
“I would tell the kids who are going through it right now, [amputation] will be better than being affected by [cancer] in the long run,” Burns said. “You’re going to be the same as everyone else, you’ll just look a little different. That doesn’t matter. Looks don’t matter. It’s just your personality.”
It is that strong will and positive attitude that made Burns the natural choice for Mesa’s Student of the Year in May. Plus, students rallied together to support him as he returned to school and raised funds to help pay for his medical expenses and the opportunity to participate in the torch relay.
“The kids immediately jumped on the idea that Robert could run part of that segment of the torch run and that would be a really cool thing for him to do,” Mesa teacher Jennifer Sheets. “The student council got with teachers from each of our eighth-grade teams and put the challenge out to them to create ways to have the students within their teams raise money.”
“It was totally about the kids. They were the ones that said, ‘let’s make this happen,’” Sheets added.
Leix says she and her family have been touched by the generosity of the Mesa Middle School community
“It was a very tight-knit community. Tony Jackowski and his staff were amazing. They really rallied the kids around Robert in the right way, a positive way,” Leix said. “That staff was so supportive and loving of him. They were reasonable with all the time off and all of the things that were needed when we pulled him out of school. It couldn’t have been a better experience.”
"The way [Mr. Jackowski] and the school handled Robert while he was going through all that last season was amazing," Leix added, in a note to DCSD. "Robert and I agree he's THE BEST principal he could have had at such a time."
For several years, Mesa has led the way when it comes to inclusion. It had the first Project Unify program in Douglas County and since then its staff, including Caricato, has worked with the District to expand the program. Beginning this year, there will be unified soccer and basketball programs at every middle and high school in the Douglas County School District, giving students with special needs and typical kids the opportunity to get to know each other and work together.
Caricato hopes that Burns will be an inspiration to everyone in the District.
“I hope it motivates more people in our District and our community to get involved with Special Olympics and helping out with our students with intellectual disabilities and physical disabilities,” Caricato said. “Let’s incorporate all of these kids into our lives. They have so much to offer.”