Maddie Letsche has always done things in order to help other people.
Aside from activities like dancing and running track, the 18-year-old from Altoona and 2011 graduate of Altoona Area High School also spent time working in soup kitchens, knitting mittens for people in homeless shelters and raising money for people in Africa.
But in October 2009, waking up with foot pain led to months of testing and becoming progressively paralyzed from the feet up. Maddie was diagnosed with advanced thyroid cancer that also triggered an auto-immune response and caused her body to attack its own nervous system.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Maddie Letsche of Altoona has been named the 2012 WISE?Women Rising Star for her charity work.
Racking up hospital bills, travel and hotel costs, Maddie and her family were now the ones that needed help.
"A trip to Children's [Hospital of Pittsburgh] is nothing for her," said Maddie's mother, Laura Letsche. "She has three to five of them a month."
To help with the financial strain, Maddie and her family started their charity, "Maddie's Journey." Maddie's work ethic and giving spirit allowed the charity to blossom into a financial and moral support system for other families of teens affected by life-threatening illnesses.
"When I got sick, I lost a lot of things that I was able to do," she said. "I was really dependent on my body - I danced, ran track, things like that. When I wasn't able to do all that other stuff, this was something I was able to still do."
Because of her efforts, Maddie will be honored by the WISE Women of Blair County as the 2012 Rising Star award recipient. It is annually given to a community member 21 years old or younger whose self-initiated community service has provided a significant and positive impact.
Maddie said she didn't know much about the award, but is thankful for the community's showing of support.
"It's kind of crazy because when you're doing something on your own, you're not entirely sure that anybody else notices," Maddie said.
"You don't do it for someone to notice, you do it to help somebody," Laura added. "Sometimes when someone notices, it's out of the blue. You don't just say, 'Oh, I'm going to do this and everybody is going to know who I am.' That's not why you do any of it."
"You do it because Altoona and Blair County have been a huge blessing for us, and we need to be as much a blessing for them as they are for us."
Flo Shuss, who nominated Maddie for the award after becoming familiar with her charity work at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Altoona, said Maddie has an "infectious love of life" and an "unbelievably positive spirit" that needed to be recognized.
"Young people nowadays, you don't see that spirit in them," she said. "Maddie has a lot of that. ... It's nice to see somebody overcome such a challenge and be so positive about it. She's the type that starts with lemonade and she'll make lemon cake."
Though they've already held several events including carwashes and barbecues, Maddie has big plans for the future of "Maddie's Journey." She and Laura would like to provide more activities for older kids at Altoona Hospital as well as set up a transportation service in the area for other families who need to make regular trips to Children's Hospital.
"Now we've sort of got our feet wet," Laura said. "Although some of it still goes to help her get places, we've been branching out to help other kids, and now she has her own pet projects."
And despite all of her accomplishments, Maddie still considers her greatest one to be graduation. She not only finished two years of work in one to be able to graduate on time after getting sick, but she practiced for weeks and built up her strength to ensure that she'd be able to walk on stage to get her diploma.
"I wanted to go get my diploma on my feet," Maddie said.
"What's fun is she walks better on her toes, so wearing heels was not a crisis," Laura added.
Mirror Staff Writer Beth Ann Downey is at 946-7520.